The “Severely Autistic” Go To College

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Autism and Learning, Inclusion) by Estee on 25-02-2011

Ralph James Savarese, Professor of English at Grinnell College and author of Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption, writes The Silver Trumpet of Freedom in The Huffington Post. It’s about his autistic son D.J. and how he communicates by typing. D.J., featured several years ago on CNN, is a non verbal autistic individual, and an autistic self advocate. D.J. is now in College and of this Ralph writes:

Pitting his fear of an oppressive neurotypical culture, which as a rule continues to exclude people with autism and to prevent them from realizing their potential, against his belief in the power of words to combat prejudice and to change society, he decided to apply to a range of highly selective liberal arts colleges. Although he had made a place for himself in our small, rural community, he had his doubts about the wider world.

The fact remains: very few people whom the medical community would describe as “severely autistic” matriculate to college. By some estimates, only 20 nonspeaking people with autism have ever earned a college degree. Tito Mukhopadhyay, author of three books and perhaps the world’s most renowned nonspeaking autist, puts it this way: “My school is the doubt in your eyes.”

We know of non verbal “severely” autistic people who have been or are currently attending colleges and universities. If they haven’t done that, they’ve written insightful books on autism, are important researchers in the field of autism, and lend perspective about themselves and the human condition. Their contributions are evolving our view of how autistic people and those with other disabilities are viewed. The goal? An understanding of what it means to be accommodated in order to be able to contribute and to be accepted.

Although I click my heels (there’s no place like home) with glee everytime I read one of these articles that raise the bar higher, I have to recall the recent story in my hometown of Toronto where Ashif Jaffer, a student with Down syndrome, was forced to withdraw from York University because he required assistance. It’s an interesting story and one to keep an eye on because many autistic individuals require assistance and accommodation to attend colleges and universities. Also, many are asked to leave precisely for this reason. There is little understanding of why an autistic individual is often dependent, in various degrees, and perhaps too much value placed on the myth of independence — at least the value of it. With new technologies, I see autistic individuals better able to respond and contribute to our university programs, but our institutions of higher education are not quite prepared, and still lack understanding of what assistance means for the disabled to be able to participate as they are in our society.

Huh. As I write, this thought lept into my mind: the typewriter was originally invented for the blind. As a result of this accommodation, I too have benefited.

Onward ho!


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.