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Glen Ellyn

Autismerica group helps students gain confidence, socialize among peers

Glen Ellyn, IL

Steven Rusch, 23, of Downers Grove, has been studying game design at the College of DuPage for three years and enjoys geology, history and computer games.

But going to college is different for Rusch.

He’s been diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

His father, Steven Rusch, said many people who are diagnosed with autism lack social skills, so it’s hard to make friends.

“These kids will wander through COD with the thousands of kids around and don’t say anything to anyone — that’s just the way they are,” the elder Rusch said.

To help him network with other autistic students, Rusch got involved with a group called Autismerica. At a COD board meeting last month, he stood in front of a large group of people to talk about how much fun he has at the group’s meetings.

Autismerica is a social group at COD for students with autism and other learning disabilities. It was founded in November 2010 to give students with these types of disabilities a place to network.

While these students attend classes at COD, group co-adviser Michael Duggan said many struggle with anxiety and loneliness.

“In high school, they have time to network,” he said. “So we wanted to create some way to connect with each other.”

The group meets the second week of each month in the college’s Student Resource Center. Each meeting starts with something educational, such as a speaker talking about identity theft. Group members then spend time playing ping-pong, pool, board games, or anything typical college students do.

Duggan said roughly 150 of the 31,000 students at COD informed the college they were diagnosed with a disability, such as autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 110 children in the United States have some type of autism spectrum disorder.

For Duggan’s dissertation for his doctorate in education, he looked at different methods used to connect students with disabilities at community colleges.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent statistics on the number of college students with disabilities come from a 2006 study. It states 12.4 percent of students in community colleges during the 2003-04 academic year had a disability. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education determined there were more than 1.4 million students with disabilities in the American higher education system.

“There has been a sharp increase of students with disabilities in community colleges,” Duggan said. One reason for this is because “schools are doing a better job preparing these students for college,” he said.

Rusch said for his son, Steven, programming for autistic students in high school is much more hands-on, whereas in college, students are left to do almost everything on their own — just like typical college students.

“One of the big things about high school is they have support staff for kids that say, ‘Did you show up today? Did you do your homework,’” Rusch said. “At college, there’s a special service group, which is great, but they’re not staffed to pull (the students) in every day.”

In addition, Duggan said he and his co-adviser, Sheryl Ebersold, sometimes hold workshops for teachers to help them understand how to help autistic students in the classroom.

Josh Romaniak, 22, of Naperville, is also a member of Autismerica. He’s studying graphic design and film and said he wishes Autismerica was around when he first started at COD because the group often brings in professors or speakers to talk about school-related topics.

“Classes were challenging (at first)... I would have learned to get a tutor,” he said. “It’s (also) allowed me to have contact with people to hang out with.”

Oliver Smith, 19, of Villa Park, said when  he started COD one year ago, it was difficult because he didn’t have much support. He said hearing speakers at the monthly Autismerica meetings has been beneficial.

“They talk about how to deal with teachers and the pressure... how to find support and communicate with teachers and how to manage my time and schedule,” he said.

Although Smith has learned from speakers at the meetings, he said socializing is his favorite part.
“I like socializing with other students knowing that they have the same disability that I have or something similar,” he said.

Duggan said 40 to 45 people attend monthly meetings, and parents of autistic students are also encouraged to attend to network.

Rusch, Steven’s father, said he attends every meeting to meet other parents.

“What I’m trying to do is set up a group of parents that get an email structure together and basically say, ‘(My child) is available this weekend, does anyone want to do something?’” Rusch said.

For its June meeting, the group made its first off-campus trip to Enchanted Castle in Lombard where they played air hockey and arcade games and socialized. In July, Duggan plans to take the group to see the movie “Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon.”

During his time at COD, Duggan said Autismerica has been one of the most positive projects he’s been involved with.

“It’s open to anyone who wants to learn more — for parents and college students who want to grow and learn,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rusch said the group has been an asset for his son and would love to see meetings happen more often.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “I would love to see the group meetings happen maybe twice a month.”

More online
For more information about Autismerica, visit

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