Thursday, July 17, 2014

2- Transition to College for Students on the Autism Spectrum: OCD

My college students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) thought of me their Professor Dumbledore.  I thought of them as my young wizards. And Dark Magic became my metaphor for the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that some of them battled. William was one such young wizard.

Early in the semester, each Honors Intro student was required to submit a paragraph describing his proposed research topic for the course.  The paragraph was worth 10% of the course grade.

A week after the deadline, our smart and talented William had still not submitted his paragraph.  His professor, Dr. Romero, emailed William and cc’ed our “Head of House,” graduate student Jessica Dunn; Dr. Romero said he would give William another day to submit the assignment. 

Jessica, who was completing a Master’s degree in Special Education with an emphasis in Counseling, talked with William.  She asked to see his paragraph.  He produced 15 versions of the same paragraph.  She asked him how she could support him in turning in his assignment.  William said that he wasn’t satisfied with any of the versions, and he was not going to submit his work until he was satisfied with it. 

Jessica reviewed the course syllabus with William and pointed out that the assignment earned 10% of the grade simply by being submitted; any of the paragraphs would earn full points.  All William had to do was select any paragraph he had written and send it to Dr. Romero.  Jessica offered to help him pick one.


A week later, Dr. Romero contacted me.  He told me how insightful William’s comments and questions in class were.  And he told me that William had still not submitted his paragraph. 

I tried to leave all interventions to Jessica and the peers who provided wraparound services for my young wizards.  Part of what was revolutionary about our program was that it was completely student-driven.  However, that night I played Professor Dumbledore and paid my young wizard a visit.

I told William about my call from his professor.  I asked to see his paragraph.  William wrung his hands and paced.  In a high, constricted voice, he told me that he had realized that he had selected the “wrong” topic.  He had finally figured out the “right” topic, and he would have to start over on his paragraph.  I told him that no topic was right or wrong for the course project; he needed to proceed with the topic he had previously selected. 

Nope.  That was the WRONG topic.  He had to write about the RIGHT one.  He raked his hands through his hair, chewed frantically on his bleeding fingertips, and clenched and unclenched his fists.  His OCD rampaged.

Because of the intensity of his response, I told William that if he had to use the new topic for his project, he should contact Dr. Romero, explain the problem, and submit a new paragraph the next day. He agreed.

A week later, Dr. Romero called me again.  Still no paragraph from William.  I went to see William again and asked why he had not sent his paragraph.  “It’s not ready.” 

I asked to see his work. He opened a document with 27 versions of the new paragraph; only a word or two differed in each.  None was acceptable to him. 

“Just pick one and send it,” I said.

“No!  I can’t! I don’t know which one is the right one!”

I leaned back on the couch.  “Take a deep breath,” I said, “Then send the entire document, all 27 versions.”

“No! I have to figure out which is the right one!”

I sensed that pushing William further could be catastrophic.  “You’re an adult, and I can’t force you,” I said. “You’ll have to decide what to do and then deal with the consequences of your decision.”

William never submitted the paragraph.  He dropped the course instead.

We knew that we would have challenges assisting our wonderful young wizards with ASDs in their transition to college.  Unfortunately, we never anticipated having students who had the severity of OCD that William had.  OCD turned out to a metaphorical Dark Magic that controlled William.  We did not have a metaphorical counter-curse that would protect him.  Perhaps Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy could have helped him, but only a skilled, experienced psychiatric professional in a controlled environment could have provided that for him.  We could not brew that potion.
Parents of children with ASD and co-morbid OCD need to work with their psychiatrists and therapists to ensure that the OCD is under control before their youngsters leave for college; alternatively, their children may need to live at home and commute to college, at least for the first year. Heads of House, old professors, and the young wizards themselves can only do so much.

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