Autism Not A Barrier For 16-Year-Old College Freshman
HARTFORD, Conn. — Twenty years ago, Ben Liske, a 16-year-old with autism, might not have had a chance for admission at any competitive liberal arts college.
But at Trinity College in Hartford, where Liske is a first-year student, he was not only admitted, but also was welcomed with a $200,000, four-year Presidential Scholarship.
Certainly Ben, who is from Nashville, Tenn., had plenty of qualifications. He had top test scores and grades, as well as recommendations from his high school noting his brilliance in math and music, and his contribution to the Quiz Bowl Team, the Cryptography Club and the concert and jazz bands.
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Even for him, however, some schools didn’t want to take a chance.
“I applied to 10 schools; four accepted me,” Ben, modest and soft-spoken, said recently as he set up his dormitory room with his mother, Juli. “The other three did not provide nearly as much financial aid. That was kind of a big deciding factor.”
Many other factors also contributed to his decision: the traditional feel of the campus with its 19th century buildings, lush lawn and trees; the helpfulness of staff and administrators; and the chance to take engineering and music.
“Here’s a college that called itself liberal arts and there’s an actual accredited engineering program,” Ben said.
Angel Perez, Trinity College vice president for enrollment, said that accepting Liske, and luring him with a big scholarship, fits in with the college’s new initiative to pay close attention to the personal characteristics of an applicant that predict success.
“So things like the overcoming of adversity and grit, and perseverance and mind-set,” Perez said. “He ticks every single one of those boxes for a student of his age and his challenge to not only be able to accomplish what he did at such a young age but to keep such a positive mindset and really overcome so many of these issues.”
At Trinity, Perez said of Liske: “We were just really inspired by his story. And as we started talking about his personal character, we said not only do we think he’s great and academically a rock star, we need to give him a scholarship. Our Presidential Scholarship is not just about being top in the class.”
He said the staff had a serious conversation about Liske’s age and also about whether the college had the services that he would need to be successful. They were convinced, particularly after meeting him, that his age would not be a problem and that the college could make the needed accommodations.
“A lot of colleges feel like it’s a risk,” Perez said. “What if we don’t provide the right kind of services? What if something happens? Because we have the (services) and we’re also very committed to students that bring the kind of character that he does to campus, you know, we were not hesitant to admit him.”
Perez said he thinks Liske will bring a different kind of diversity to campus.
“We want our students to engage in all kinds of diversity,” Perez said. “It’s not just geography, race and class and economic diversity but also neurodiversity.”
Perez said that during his years in the admissions field in Connecticut and California, he’s observed that more and more students need support of some type when they arrive on campus.
Liske expects that the support he’ll need is somewhat minimal. He may need to occasionally take tests in a room without other students that might distract him or that he might distract. When he takes a test, he often likes to tap or hum, which can be distracting to others. Suppressing that impulse takes so much energy that it can hurt his test scores.
He’s also set up a regular weekly appointment with a counselor and he’s planning to meet with each of his professors so he gets to know them and they get to know him. He realizes he has a tendency, when he knows the academic material, to want to answer every question in class. To solve that in high school, one of his teachers would say “ABB” — anybody but Ben — to avoid having him dominate. Ben may give his professors that helpful hint.
He also needed to have a room of his own so he wouldn’t bother anyone if he wanted to play his electric piano and guitar.
As part of his transition to campus, his mother gave a presentation on autism to some Trinity professors and administrators. Juli Liske has become an expert in autism and founded the Brown Center for Autism in Nashville.
While she mostly talked about autism in general, she said she did describe a bit about Ben. For instance, she said, she mentioned that during a summer program at Vanderbilt University, her son had a professor who was frustrated with him.
“Ben didn’t look at him or appear to be listening,” Liske said, “He was wiggling, moving around, getting up, coming back to his seat. … He thought: This kid doesn’t even care. The eye contact wasn’t there.”
But then Ben was able to answer a complicated question with a big long equation. “That’s when I realized he was listening,” Liske said the professor told her.
Ben said he’s had trouble with eye contact — a trait shared by many with autism — because “eyes can be scary. … They are how you see and how you perceive.”
Liske said that once Ben gets to know someone, it’s easier to make eye contact.
Of his devotion to academics and special abilities, Ben said, “I tend to be able to do things for hours that some people can stand to do only for seconds.”
Lori Clapis, who coordinates accommodation services for students with disabilities or learning differences at Trinity, said she helps hundreds of students on campus get the services or help they need.
“We review every student’s documentation on a case by case basis,” Clapis said, explaining that the services needed vary greatly from student to student even if their diagnoses are the same.
Of students with autism, she said, “Some receive academic accommodation like extended time, some may receive a second set of class notes. It depends on the individuals, on where they are on the spectrum. Some will really benefit from just having a clear set of instructions from their professors. For someone who is autistic, I don’t think ambiguity is for them. They want it to be crystal clear, so they know what’s expected.”
Recently, Liske and his mother worked diligently on his small room to make it homey, hanging up the Union Jack Flag that he acquired in Gibraltar on his window, pinning up photos of his family and friends, his dog, Paisley, himself as a favorite character, Mr. Spock on Halloween and the Nashville skyline.
For Juli Liske, the chance to work with her son setting up his college dorm room was something she thought might never happen.
When he was nearly 2, Ben was diagnosed with severe autism and probable intellectual disability. He said only five words — all numbers — didn’t acknowledge his parents coming or going and was prone to violent tantrums.
“I wrote on his diagnosis day that I wondered if he would ever be able to speak or know who I am,” Liske said.
At the time, they were living in eastern Eastern Kentucky, where there were few services, so Liske set about researching autism and set up a behavioral treatment program for Ben.
Eventually, her intense work paid off and he began to acquire language, although he never picked up her Southern accent, and his aptitude for math emerged.
At Trinity, Ben is looking forward to his classes and hopes to have time to study languages — perhaps learn Russian — and to perform his music.
Over the years, he said, he’s learned that he often finds international students the most like him. “Probably it’s an understanding of the fact that I’m not accustomed to any one culture,” Ben said, explaining that he feels a bit detached from mainstream culture.
He expects it will take him a little time to transition, as that isn’t easy for him. His first night at Trinity he didn’t sleep, but that’s improving, he said.
Earlier this month, his mother attended convocation and then it was time for goodbyes.
And like any college kid, Ben was eager to be on his own.
“He seemed like he wanted to shoo me off campus,” his mother said.
© 2016 Hartford Courant
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