College on the spectrum

college on the spectrumA breakthrough documentary explores what it’s like to go to college with an autism diagnosis

Tess Eyrich

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Though it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact number, a growing number of young people with autism spectrum disorder are choosing to go to college. Some write about their diagnosis in their college application essays and immediately request services from on-campus disabled student services offices.

But many others don’t. They enter college hoping for a fresh start — without a label, without asking for accommodations, and often without even telling their professors and peers about their diagnosis.

The college experiences of students with autism are incredibly diverse, said autism researcher Jan Blacher, a distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Until recently, however, those experiences have traditionally been under-studied, with limited data available to illustrate them or highlight how they might be improved. 

More than two years in the making, a new first-of-its-kind film explores how it’s going at colleges as more and more students with an autism spectrum diagnosis enroll. Premiering this month, “Autism Goes to College” follows five Southern California college students with autism: two at UC Riverside; one at California State University, Long Beach; one at Cal State, Fullerton; and one at Mt. San Jacinto College.

The film is set to debut on April 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. Tickets can be purchased here. Follow-up screenings will take place on April 28 at 5:45 p.m. at the Lido Theater in Newport Beach (tickets here) and on June 6 at 7 p.m. at UCR’s Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts in downtown Riverside. 

Blacher, who served as the film’s executive producer, joined director Erik Linthorst and writer/producer Jody Becker, the filmmakers behind the award-winning PBS documentary “Autistic-Like: Graham’s Story,” which chronicled Lindhorst and his wife’s quest for a clear diagnosis for their young son.

The concept for the film sprang from earlier research conducted by Blacher at UCR to discern how colleges are responding to increasing levels of neurodiversity on campus, and how they can do better. Blacher, who also serves as the founding director of UCR’s SEARCH Center, a free autism screening clinic for families, was especially curious about the campus community’s knowledge and acceptance of students with autism. 

“These students know there is no map for them, and we found that even if they feel lost for a while, they just keep moving forward,” said Linthorst. “We were blown away by the insights and advice these students were ready to share. College was working for them pretty much because they were making it work.”

Go here to learn more about the film:


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