CHICAGO — It was never a question whether Paris King would go to college.

The 23-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum, loved learning — especially history — and he and his parents saw no reason why he shouldn’t continue to do so after high school.

But during the four years King spent earning his bachelor’s degree in history at Roosevelt University, he endured setbacks that would have challenged any student. His father died. King was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was mugged near his home. And his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer that required aggressive treatment.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

So when King walked across the stage and received his diploma last month at a graduation ceremony, he was cheered on by faculty, family and friends for not only believing that a person with autism is capable of college, but also for overcoming enormous personal challenges to become a role model for people with disabilities.

“Paris never has a bad attitude,” said Danielle Smith, associate director of academic success at Roosevelt University. “He always finds a way to do it.”

King is one of four students with autism who graduated with bachelor’s degrees from Roosevelt in 2017, a number that has been steadily increasing for the past four years, Smith said.

“I came to college so I can learn more about the world we live in,” King said. “It has been a fun experience, but it has been hard.”

The increase at Roosevelt mirrors a national trend of students with autism enrolling in and finishing college. Because universities cannot, by law, require students to report autism or other disabilities in college applications, exact numbers are hard to pin down. But anecdotally, advocates say the large increase in the number of people diagnosed with autism is prompting more conversations about how to offer opportunities and access to the growing population.

And in turn, more students on the autism spectrum are pursuing bigger education goals.

“It’s really important for every individual to be able to have access to lifelong learning opportunities,” said Vanda Marie Khadem, founder of the Autism Higher Education Foundation, which launched in 2008 with a mission of opening access to education for people on the autism spectrum.

“Parents are demanding it, and students are demanding it, and teachers are recognizing it,” she said.

King, the youngest of three children, grew up in a Navy family that relocated several times when he was young. As a toddler growing up in San Diego, he exhibited speech delays, sensitivity to noise and fixations with hobbies. But after a doctor’s quick evaluation incorrectly determined King was not on the autism spectrum, and instead had an unspecified learning disability, his parents carried on, handling his idiosyncrasies without guidance from doctors or educators, said his mother, Patricia King.

The family moved to the Chicago area by the time Paris King was of school age. Because he struggled to focus and missed social cues, he often was separated into classes for students with behavioral problems. King also became the target of bullies. At 12 years old, he was diagnosed with autism — a revelation that triggered mixed emotions from his parents, his mother recalled.

“I felt irresponsible, because as we know now, the earlier you’re able to get intervention and get them the help they need, the better they do,” Patricia King said.

But it also motivated Paris King’s parents to advocate for him and his access to educational opportunities from that point on, she added.

“It was definitely in the plan for him to go to college,” she said. “We believed that he had the ability … and the whole plan was to support him as much as he could, to make sure that he had the tools that he needed.”

With encouragement from his teachers at Gary Comer College Prep High School, where he graduated with honors, King applied to Roosevelt University. He and his parents sought out the university’s Academic Success Center, which works with students with disabilities to help them meet the same class and credit requirements expected of all students.

King began meeting twice a week for an hour with Smith, of the academic center, who was impressed with the way he tackled difficult assignments, from term papers on ancient African tribes to readings on renewable energy. King takes longer to focus and get his thoughts onto paper than some of his classmates, but he never lets his challenges stifle him, Smith said.

Patricia King said she worried that her son might lose focus even more after his father died during his freshman year. Eight weeks later, Paris King complained of extreme dizziness and nausea. After a week in the hospital, doctors diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the brain and spinal cord. But after doctors put him on regular medication to address his MS symptoms, he was back on campus.

During his sophomore year, he was assaulted on the sidewalk outside his former high school by an assailant who hit him on the head with a brick and demanded the $19 cash King had in his wallet. When he was a junior, his mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, which required a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Through it all, he continued taking public transportation daily to campus from his home in South Shore, where he lives with his mother.

He thrived in classes that explored world history and African-American studies. And after walking past a classroom filled with students playing video games — which are one of his passions — he found a network of friends in an extracurricular group known as the Level Up/Power Up Club.

“He’s matured quite a bit, and I’m very proud of his progress,” his mother said. “And I do believe that has to do with him continuing his education and forging ahead.”

Smith said she was inspired to work with King and his family, because their support and encouragement are examples of what can happen when people expect more out of people with autism and other disabilities.

“The more and more we talk about not just people with autism but with other disabilities, the more we’ll see on campus,” she said.

© 2018 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC