Cal State Long Beach has seen a 300 percent increase in the number of enrolled students diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s syndrome in the past three years.
Director of Disabled Student Services (DSS) David Sanfilippo, who has worked in the program for 35 years, said the increase comes as the ability to detect disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, has gotten better.
According to Sanfilippo, five years ago one in every 2,500 people was diagnosed with autism. That ratio has since increased to one in 88.
“I think it’s because we’ve gotten better at assessment,” he said.
DSS Autism Specialist Nicole Smith runs the Learning Independence for Empowerment (LIFE) Project, a group that hosts weekly gatherings to help students with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, social anxiety and other social-cognitive deficits to build independence and improve social skills through workshops, presentations and projects.
According to Smith, enrollment in the LIFE Project has increased by about 30 students this semester.
“I project it to continue growing throughout the years,” Smith said. “A lot of the things that we teach are useful for any student, but we’ve tailored them more specifically to students with autism or Asperger’s so that they feel more comfortable accessing the service.”
Sanfilippo said that DSS aims to develop an understanding of what autism is, a topic discussed earlier this month at the first Autism Ally seminar. The Autism Ally seminar was a DSS program that helps provide the campus community with information and opportunities to become allies to students in the autism spectrum.
The seminar covered topics including definitions of Autism Spectrum Disorder, handling classroom distractions and referring students to services available to them.
Sanfilippo said that although faculty are the best source for identifying students with disabilities, students must still try for themselves to gain support from DSS.
“It’s up to the individual whether they want to disclose that disability and whether to access services,” Sanfilippo said. “They are the best experts of their disability. They live and breathe it every day.”
Students who sign up in DSS can use programs like the LIFE Project, a program that Smith said helps students with autism and other disabilities to feel a sense of community and friendship.
“They get to see each other every week,” Smith said. “They know who will be there. They get to build a little more confidence in knowing that they’re not the only person that experiences these types of challenges.”
Students can contact DSS at (562) 985-5401 or [email protected] to learn more about the services available to them.