For Bobby Hahn, having a high-functioning form of autism spectrum disorder is a double-edged sword.
“My Asperger’s syndrome is an advantage for thinking analytically and problem solving. I can see things other people can’t,” said Bobby, 21, an incoming senior at the University of Minnesota. “In terms of social interaction, it doesn’t help me. I’m awkward in conversation and I don’t pick up on signals. And I’m disorganized.”
When he started applying for college, he referenced his Asperger’s in his admissions essay. He also posted a near-perfect math SAT score and musical extracurriculars. He was accepted by three of the four colleges where he applied.
The one college that didn’t offer the St. Paul student a spot happens to be the alma mater of his father, Rob Hahn.
“I e-mailed the admissions office to ask how they factored his autism in the decision, and they didn’t have an answer,” he said. “They say they take a holistic approach to admissions, but the back-and-forth showed me they just didn’t get it.”
That rejection set the father on a quest: to change how college admissions offices regard people who are “neurodivergent,” an umbrella term that includes people who are on the autism spectrum or have ADHD, dyslexia or other learning challenges.
“I want to create a shift, to get people thinking differently about people who think differently,” Rob said. “Schools are missing out on some of the brightest individuals who don’t fit in their neat little categories.”
The owner of a public relations business and an independent filmmaker, Rob is producing a self-funded documentary called “The Neurodiversity Challenge.”
He’s hired a videographer to trail him as he travels the country, recording his visits with university provosts, higher education advocates and students. His aim is to persuade admissions offices to add an optional box that neurodivergent students can check to self-identify in their applications, adding that to the demographic data that colleges collect from incoming students about their race, ethnicity and gender.
He believes that simple change will not only help colleges acknowledge the value of neurodivergent students, but propel them to actively recruit students like his son.
“I’m arguing for another form of diversity that colleges should take into consideration when they’re building a class profile and thinking about the learning environment for everyone,” he said. “Neurodivergent students bring a unique perspective, and their talents strengthen institutions.
“What I’m asking for is not revolutionary; it’s a natural progression.”
Overcoming the stigma
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one child in 68 is identified with autism spectrum disorder; about half of them are called high functioning, meaning they have average or above average intelligence. The National Center for Special Education Research estimates 200,000 young adults on the spectrum will enter college in the next 10 years.
“People with autism face considerable challenges in a society that’s not built for them,” said Steve Silberman, author of “Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.” “They have uneven cognitive profiles, but they can bring gifts that contribute to society if given the opportunity to fully participate in education and employment.”
His bestseller chronicles the history of autism, which was first identified as a childhood condition in the 1940s. An early researcher posited that the condition was caused by inadequate parenting by what was termed “refrigerator mothers.”
“We now know that’s complete BS, but it caused great suffering for families and made autism a source of shame. If you had an autistic kid, it was like admitting you were so toxic you could not love your own child,” Silberman said. “We’re just one generation away from the stigma, and I think that’s a big part of why we still haven’t built the educational resources for students on the spectrum.”
Already he sees the pendulum swinging. He points to an increasing number of neurodivergent college students graduating into promising STEM careers. He’s also been invited to speak at Microsoft, Google, Apple and other high-profile tech startups that prize a neurodivergent workforce.
“These companies don’t see this as charity, being nice to poor disabled people,” Silberman said. “They see that their neurodivergent employees help their bottom line and build value for their stockholders with their skills of concentration and intense focus.”
Leading the way
Many colleges and universities have established on-campus programs for neurodivergent students once they are enrolled, offering academic support as well as assistance with life skills to ease the adjustment to college life.
At the College of William and Mary in Virginia, incoming students who self-identify as neurodivergent are matched with peer mentors and can attend a summer program. Once classes start, they can participate in an officially recognized student organization and access faculty support.
“For us, neurological diversity joins racial and cultural diversity as essential elements that enrich our university,” said Karin Wulf, co-founder of the college’s Neurodiversity Initiative, which started in 2012. “We recognize that these conditions are ways of being, not diseases.”
A history professor and the mother of a son on the spectrum, Wulf teaches an introduction to neurodiversity course and regularly takes part in the neurodiverse student group.
“We talk about best practices, what’s necessary for neurodiverse students to succeed,” she said. “We live in a complex world, and the more we understand the contributions of different perspectives, the better off we are.”
That’s the message Rob has been carrying to college campuses, but he said it’s too soon to tell if he’s making headway with admissions offices.
“When I get on my soapbox, some have told me in no uncertain terms not to tell them what to do. That’s good; it means I’m getting under their skin,” he said.
For his part, Bobby said he’s perfectly happy attending the U, where he majors in math, plays trumpet in the symphonic band and hangs out with friends at the engineering fraternity. But he admires his father’s determination.
“My dad is bold, persistent; he doesn’t take no for an answer,” Bobby said. “I’m fairly passive. I don’t know if that comes from Asperger’s or it’s just how I see the world. If you argue and lose, you’re a social pariah. I struggle enough with that as it is.”
Bobby believes his father’s efforts are “making people think.”
Silberman thinks efforts such as Rob’s are doing something more: propelling what he sees as “one of the most promising civil rights movements of the 21st century.”
He added, “If we see it through, it will produce tremendous benefits for society as a whole.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.