Autistic students find support in new College of DuPage group

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Proud to be a member: College of DuPage student, Mike Rettinger along with his mom Mary Jo Rettinger are members of the new group Autismerica at the college. The group made up of autistic students and their parents. The group's name was created by the students. | Mary Compton~For Sun-Times Media

When College of DuPage counselor Dr. Michael Duggan and his colleagues sent letters announcing a new social and support organization to the approximately 120 students who identified themselves as autistic, they had no idea how many people would show up at the first meeting.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen. We were really nervous,” Duggan said. “What if two people show up?”

More than 60 students and parents came out that night in December 2010. Now, the organization — named Autismerica by the students — regularly draws between 50 and 60 people to its monthly meeting.

Autismerica meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month in the Student Services Center, Room 1200. Serving with Duggan as co-coordinator of the group is Sheryl Ebersold, special needs associate in Special Student Services.

“We have a pretty consistent following of students,” Duggan said. “And our group is growing.”

Word of mouth has brought students to the group that did not identify as having autism upon enrolling in class. College students from Will County and Chicago have also attended meetings.

“There aren’t a lot of things like this in all of Illinois,” Duggan said.

More disabled learners

According to the American Association of Community College’s National Center of Statistics, about 12.4 percent of community college students have a disability, which is up from about 8 percent from 10 years ago. Among the fastest growing populations are those with autism, Duggan said.

Despite growing number of students, there really wasn’t anything available to help students as they enter their college years.

“We have a lot of great resources as they go through the school process,” Duggan said. “But as they transition into adulthood, there are not a lot of resources or programs.”

Elmhurst mother Monica Babcock agrees. Babcock said she was used to having a support system for special education through her local school district. But when her son, Keith, began attending college, it wasn’t the same.

“It was kind of nice to see the group crop up at College of DuPage,” she said.

Keith, 23, said participating in Autismerica lets students know “at least we’re not the only one with Autism,” he said. “In a way it felt good to know there were others.”

Keith will be transferring to Western Illinois University in the fall, where he plans to major in chemistry.

Keith, who tends to be more social, Monica said, volunteered to be co-president of the group.

“He stepped up to the plate,” Monica said. “I was proud of him for that.”

The group, he said, offers a chance to make new friends and see what resources are in the area. Monica said since the group started, she has noticed a change in her son.

“He’s more outgoing than he used to be,” Monica said. “I’m a little less worried about him transferring to Western. I think the experience in autism group has benefitted him in that he can move on and forward.”

Meeting a need

The idea for the organization came together rather quickly, Duggan said, a reflection of how strong the needs is for something like it.

Duggan said he and Shelly Mencacci, Veterans Benefits associate who at the time worked in Special Student Services, were talking in fall 2010 about how the college is seeing a large number of students at the college with autism.

Their conversation was sparked by a student who asked how he could meet other students like himself.

“There was a real huge need for students,” Duggan said. “They’re usually the only person like this in their class.”

In November 2010, Duggan and Ebersold began planning for the first meeting, which took place one month later. Each meeting includes an educational component — such as a guest speaker about services available on campus — as well as social time. When students are busy playing games or talking, parents have time to socialize as well.

“We really wanted to create something for parents too, because they really feel disconnected,” Duggan said. “So the parent is just as welcome with students. The parents come together and support each other in a peer support group.”

The organization operates “on a shoestring budget,” Duggan said. At the meetings the group uses a popcorn machine for snacks and provides bottled water. Attendees are asked to pay $1 to help cover the cost, but if those who do not have the money are still welcome to participate. The college provides the room for the group to meet.

During the summer, Autismerica met off-campus for social gatherings that included going to the movies and playing video games.

Downers Grove student Mike Rettinger, who has Aspergers Syndrome, said he feels comfortable and accepted at the meetings. The 24-year-old, who is earning his GED at the collage, said he is making friends at the meetings.

“I am happy (Michael Duggan) started the group,” Mike said via email. “It is hard to make friends. I am a real nice guy. I love computers. I fix computers and printers. I want to make friends and do things with them.”

Mike’s mother, Mary Jo Rettinger, said her family feels blessed to be a part of Autismerica and is grateful to Duggan and COD for offering it. The group helps students to feel comfortable to reach out and make friends.

“It is very heartwarming to see the students at the meetings with their parents. They are good people,” she said. “They want to have friends like everyone else. They just lack the socialization skills.”

‘Feel very welcome’

Duggan, who specializes in working with students with disabilities, called working with Autismerica is the “highlight of my career.”

“Everyone just makes everyone feel very welcome, regardless of communication level,” Duggan said. “They really kind of embrace each other.”

The group is so important to the students, they even brave the elements. Duggan said the January meeting was almost cancelled because they thought no one would come out in the snow.

“By 7:30, we had 25 people there,” he said.

In December, the group celebrated its one year anniversary with a pizza party. But after meeting for just six months, members of the group were already celebrating its success. In May representatives from Autismerica spoke before the college’s Board of Trustees, explaining how much the group means to them.

“Autismerica is a bond that ties together the students that have a common disability. It is the teamwork that brings us out of selfishness and loneliness,” said student Oliver Smith of Villa Park. “It is the effort we worked hard for to make ourselves feel comfortable from the doubt of the outside world, and the unity and charisma we hope to inspire future members to learn what it means to have fun, and not feel ashamed of being different from everybody.”