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Autistic and Chasing My College Dream Part 1

This guest post was written by Gianna Hitsos, a high school senior on the autism spectrum who will soon begin her college career. This is the first of a two-part blog. Check back next week for more from Gianna.

It has been a year since I started my college search. I still have months to go before I begin my college life but I wanted to take a look back on my new, exciting and very frightening journey. I am an 18 year old senior in high school with high functioning autism. I decided to apply to college as a music major. For the past five years, I have taken voice lessons at the Boston Conservatory Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum, a unique program that trains musically-talented autistic students. Music has always helped me process things better, but it turned into so much more. I found a talent and passion for singing I never knew I had, and music became a path to inclusion for me. I was determined to study music at college!!

THE SEARCH

With all of the challenges that go with having autism, my parents and I realized that for me to be successful we had to find colleges that were fairly close to home since I would have to live on campus. We put the distance limit at 1-1.5 hours from our house and began our search. While other kids looked at sports, Greek life, internships and how to get as far away from home as possible, I looked at my major, how the buildings were organized on campus, and most importantly, whether these schools were inclusive of autistic people. Feeling included somewhere was as important as academics! The other factor was the challenge of having a roommate. Since I stem by rocking back and forth, pacing and talking to myself, I would need a single room to succeed.    

After a lot of research (Thanks, Mom!), we narrowed it down to ten colleges, and last fall we started our visits to them. What an eye opener that was!  Some were beautiful and had great music programs, some did not give me a feeling of inclusion and some looked downright dangerous! Yikes! When we narrowed it down, my mom and I scheduled tours and made appointments with the Disability Service department.  We asked what accommodations they could provide me and if they are experienced with students on the spectrum at their college. Many of them said that they had several students on the spectrum, that their department would be the “go to” place for me to get any problems resolved and that they were the liaison between professors and students. There were two schools that also provided specific tutoring, counseling, and social activities for autistic students—a huge bonus!

HOUSING OPTIONS

When it came to housing accommodations, some schools said that a single room was not a problem, but at least two colleges did not extend themselves at all and said that you had to submit an enormous amount of paperwork and then a panel would review it and see if a single room was appropriate. One of those schools even said that they did not determine housing until July 1st without exception. The problem with that was if you were accepted to that school, you must let them know by May 1st. If having a single was a vital part of whether I could adjust or succeed in the college environment, how could I make an informed choice on where to go?! I knew these schools were not a good fit but since I was so afraid that maybe I wouldn’t get into ANY college, I applied to them anyway. This next part was REALLY important. I went to visit colleges 2, 3, even 4 times. It made all the difference because when I went back, I sometimes liked the college more, and it went up in the ranking, and sometimes I got a different vibe or learned a little more about the students and the rank dropped.

THE APPLICATION PROCESS

Some colleges require SAT or ACT scores. I truly believe standardized tests do not reflect my ability to learn and be successful in school. Despite my autism, I have been able to maintain an A average and I’m a member of National Honor Society but when it comes to test-taking I need accommodations like a separate room and  frequent breaks. Even still, taking the ACT was hard. Many of the questions were formulated in a way that is hard for someone with autism to understand. I took the ACT twice to improve my score, but I stood firm with my parents that I would not go through the stress of taking them a third time, even though I was still worried that the scores would affect my application.

Another part of the application was the required essay. Some asked for more than one. This part was easy because I love to write, and I was asked to tell my personal story. My journey as a person with autism is quite a unique story! My only complaint here was that there a word limit and I had so much to tell them! With the help of my parents, I checked and double checked to see if everything was completed and spelled correctly, and then my mom and I would hold hands, say a prayer, and I would press “submit”. Sometimes it took a long time to finally press it!

THE INTERVIEWS

 Most all of the colleges “strongly” suggest that you interview with the admissions department as part of your application. When I heard this requirement, I panicked. I couldn’t imagine, with my autism, how I would be able to answer unanticipated questions and use enough pragmatic language to impress these people, let alone look them in the eye! I was sure that I would fail miserably, and the stress mounted by the minute. My parents, however, believed in me and knew that if we practiced, I could do it. So, my mom looked up sample questions online and every night, whether I wanted to or not, we practiced the interview questions for an hour. Some nights I could barely take it. There was a lot of sensory overload. I couldn’t process the information or develop answers so I became extremely frustrated and there were many tears. (Sorry people, but I find the use of the word “meltdown” very offensive, since it does not help others understand what really happens when someone with autism can’t process things--I am a person and not a nuclear power plant!) Believe it or not, when I got to the first interview, the person asked me the exact same questions we practiced! I thought this was a fluke, but EVERY college asked the exact same questions, and by the third college, I knew the routine!  I was great at interviewing, talking about my accomplishments and showing them that autistic people can do great things if they are included!     

Next week’s post: The Stress, The Overnight Visits, The Music Auditions, and The Wait.