As diagnoses of the disorder increase, understanding the disability is key to accommodating its many permutations.
For a college class, the assignment seemed simple enough: Gather in circles of five or six students and discuss a few questions as a group.
But one young man refused, sitting uncomfortably apart from his classmates and saying nothing.
In the past, he might have flunked the assignment outright. But in this case, the professor met with the student in private and decided to let him answer the questions by himself.
That's just one way colleges and other parts of society are starting to adapt to what might be called the autism phenomenon.
As autism has morphed from a medical oddity to a commonly diagnosed disability -- affecting one in 88 children -- the ripple effects are being felt far beyond grade schools. Travel agencies such as autistictraveler.com are catering to families with autistic children; AMC Theatres offer sensory-friendly screenings. Some businesses are starting to tailor internships to autistic young adults. Universities such as St. Thomas are trying to make dorms and classrooms more autism-friendly.
"There are more and more students, it seems, coming to college with Asperger's," a form of autism, said Kim Schumann, disability director at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "I think there's going to be more pressure to adapt and have support services in place, because they're going to come."
The latest jump in autism numbers -- released by federal officials 10 days ago -- are fueling concerns about what some say is a rising "tidal wave" of people with special needs.
"I think this whole issue has so many implications for society that we've only begun to think about," said Virginia Richardson, parent-training manager at the Pacer Center in Bloomington, which assists people with disabilities.
Experts are still debating what's driving the numbers --whether it's a true surge in autism, or a reflection of changing definitions and diagnostic techniques. Autism, a brain disorder that affects speech, learning and behavior, covers a wide range of abilities, from children who can barely speak to academic high achievers.
Most, however, share a defining feature: They lack the social skills that come second nature to their peers.
In college, said Schumann, that can spell the difference between success and failure. Students with autism often struggle with how to interact with others, stay on task, organize their work.
"If they don't have those skills, that will spill into academics," she said.
One autistic student, she said, waited for hours outside a professor's office to turn in a paper. He took the professor's instructions literally: to hand it in by 4:30 p.m. When the professor didn't show up in person, the student left -- and missed the deadline.
"What the professor meant was, put it in my mailbox," she said. Schumann helped the student and teacher straighten things out.
Where to draw the line?
Since autism is a disability, colleges are required to make accommodations for those students. That might mean extra coaching, a private dorm room, or extra time to complete a test, said Kathy McGillivray, director of disability services at Hamline University in St. Paul.
"Of course, schools have to draw the line at some point," McGillivray said.
Once, she recalled, a parent insisted her child "needed a list of what they were supposed to do that day, every day. I said, that's not something I'm going to be able to do." Instead, she advised the parents to hire another student to help the child. They did -- and after a semester, the extra help was no longer needed.
Essentially, McGillivray sees herself as a coach. Sometimes she advises students to write a letter to their professors, explaining that they may have trouble making eye contact or seem awkward in meetings because they have Asperger's. "And that works for a number of students."
She noted that the solutions vary, because the students themselves are so different. One might flounder with a roommate, "but you wouldn't want to assume that's an issue for every student who's on the spectrum," she said.
At Medtronic, managers weren't quite sure what kind of accommodations they'd need to make when they started an internship for disabled young adults, including several with autism, as part of a national program called Project Search in 2009.
What they found is that the interns with autism tended to do better in cubicles than in open spaces, because "there's no interruption," said Stan Blackwell, who oversees the project at Medtronic.
But on the job, she said, they thrived. On some tasks, they were more accurate than her regular employees, she added. "More detail-oriented, more focused, and they are so concerned about doing everything right." By the end, she said, even some of their social awkwardness had disappeared. One student gave a presentation to a couple of hundred people, something she said she "never expected."
But programs like this are rare. And advocates worry that neither colleges nor businesses are prepared for the coming rush.
"We, for a long time, have watched the autism wave come," said Sean Roy, a disability advocate at Pacer Center. "I think it's going to start spurring some serious conversations. But when you have a social condition like that, change happens, I think, over a longer period of time."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384