Graduating on the Autism Spectrum

Graduating on the Autism Spectrum

Rutgers students Merlin Moore and Max Skula say autism support program helped make it happen

Merlin and Max
Merlin Moore and Max Skula say their peer counselors helped them step out of their comfort zone and trust other people.
Photo:Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

'I have certain routines and habits that I need to stick to and I was afraid if I had a roommate, and even if I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I would have a sense of being watched '
 
– Merlin Moore

Like many college students, Max Skula and Merlin Moore, aren’t sure what their future holds when they graduate.  They hope to find jobs or maybe go to graduate school after earning some money. 

The two seniors – who will graduate from Rutgers May 18 – try not to think too far ahead, looking instead at how much they have progressed as college students and promising that they will stay in touch once they go their separate ways.

This might not seem unusual. But Skula and Moore were diagnosed as children with what was once called Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism characterized by social awkwardness that affects a person’s ability to communicate effectively with others, and is now on the autism spectrum.

When they came to Rutgers, Moore, as a first-year student and Skula, as a sophomore transfer student, were afraid that the university might be too big and worried whether they would fit .  Making friends and feeling comfortable around new people has never come easily for either student.

“I have certain routines and habits that I need to stick to and I was afraid if I had a roommate, and even if I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I would have a sense of being watched,” said Moore, who will graduate from the School of Arts and Sciences with a degree in psychology but who has decided that history and the classics are where his interests really lie.

What helped both students feel less anxious and more connected to the university was the College Support Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum.  Starting out in 2009 as part of the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center (DDDC), the program became part of Rutgers Health Services Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) in 2013 to provide more assistance to this growing student population.

“The program allows us to work closely with students and build relationships,” said Pam Lubbers, the program’s coordinator. “It’s been an honor and joy to get to know Max and Merlin and to see them grow and now graduate.”

Students like Skula and Moore who are on the autism spectrum must be accepted to Rutgers before applying to the program which includes an interview. Those who are then enrolled are offered support – from setting goals for academic achievement to teaching them how the Rutgers bus system works to providing peer mentors for moral support. "I was aware of the program before I came in and decided to enter it because being a person on the autism spectrum and going into a new experience, it is good to have emotional support,” said Skula, who will graduate from the School of Engineering with a degree in chemical engineering.

Still, it wasn’t easy.  It took work, commitment and most important, the ability to trust other people.

“Some of the stuff was rather difficult because I was repeatedly trying to step out of my comfort zone at the urging of my peer mentors,” said Moore, more reticent than Skula.

For Moore, who has been involved in a work-study program at the Alexander Library, this meant joining the marching band in his freshman year and concert band in his sophomore and junior year.  Although he left because he felt it was too time consuming, the experience, he said, was worthwhile.

Skula, who is not enrolled in the autism support program this year but still attends its social events, said there is a big difference between who he was when he came to Rutgers three years ago and now. He has made friends, like Moore, and has become good at controlling his anxiety.

Focusing on the Positive

Ask Skula what his plans are when he leaves Rutgers and he answers emphatically.

“This summer I am going to work as a certified lifeguard at the YMCA, I am going on a family vacation to Arizona, attending a video gaming convention in Canada, hopefully taking a trip to Israel with Birthright Israel in July and looking for a job as a chemical engineer.”

Still, he doesn’t want to dwell on his plans – especially the Israel trip for which he is awaiting a renewed passport – because he has learned that he can’t control everything around him. “I keep telling myself I did everything I could,” said Skula. “This is a small part of my life. If it doesn’t work out, I can always try another time.”

As they get to the end of their academic undergraduate studies, Moore and Skula, who always found it hard to make friends and rely on others before coming to Rutgers, have sought help from peer mentors in the program to assist them in drafting resumes and practicing their interviewing skills.

They think the positive aspects of their autism – paying attention to details, having a good recollection of subject matter and a good memory – will help as they leave college and go out into the workforce.

And while Skula says he hopes to be working for a chemical company in manufacturing or research and development within the next 10 years, Moore isn’t quite sure.

“I don’t honestly know where I’ll be in five years,” he said. “I find that not thinking into the distant future gives you much less of a headache.”


For more information contact Robin Lally at 848-932-0557 or rlally@ucm.rutgers.edu