Health
7:40 pm
Sat November 10, 2012

Cautiously Optimistic: Off To College, With Autism

Alex Brenner walked into his psychologist's office one day this summer and right away, he thought he had done something wrong. Both his parents were standing at the front desk. As he closed the door, his mom handed him a letter. “She said, 'read it.' I sat down. It said, ‘you’re getting into the University of Washington.’”

Alex was stunned. His dad helped him uncork a bottle of champagne and they celebrated on the spot. The University of Washington in Seattle was Alex’s first choice among schools. He had been studying for four years at a community college to get his grades up. All his hard work had finally paid off. But sitting there holding his acceptance letter, another wave of realization washed over him. Soon he’d be living on his own in a new city, a long drive from his parents’ home in Tacoma. He suddenly felt nervous.


“I’ve always relied on others,” Alex says. “Or at least [I’ve] had an adult figure to talk to or be a friend with. I never had that with peers. I’d always irk them. So to have that taken away, it’s going to be a very new experience for me.”

Alex has an autism spectrum disorder. Valerie Brenner, Alex’s mom, had been mentally preparing herself for Alex to move out for a while now.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” she says. “It is time because he has known for a long time that he will be living as an adult. But you always have concerns. And you have concerns with your typical children too.”

Getting into the UW is a major accomplishment. But this new chapter in Alex’s life is actually much bigger than just going off to college. Valerie says she worries about when she and her husband aren’t around anymore to help support Alex. “Because he has no siblings, and we have no family.”

For Alex, this new apartment is actually a test. To see if he can manage living on his own.

Pop Quiz: Move-In Day

So the stakes are high on move-in day. Everyone hopes it goes smoothly, but almost immediately, things start to go sideways. Alex and his Dad pull up in front of the building with all of Alex’s belongings packed in a moving truck. But Valerie is already there, and she’s not happy at all. Walking from the kitchen to the living room, she points out what’s wrong.

“The refrigerator is dirty,” she says. “The countertops are dirty. The floors are dirty. The sink needs to be replaced, because it’s rusted through. The stove hood is greasy … ”

She makes a long list on a legal pad. When she shows her list to the rental agent, the agent says, basically, it’s a college apartment. "Take it or leave it." Valerie and the agent get into an argument, and Alex gets uncomfortable and leaves. When he returns after the rental agent is gone, Valerie tells him, “this is real life.” She says you have to stand up for yourself or people will walk all over you.

Valerie gives the apartment a deep clean herself. Alex and his Dad move Alex’s stuff into the smaller of two bedrooms. He has trouble fitting it all in. He says you can feel the tension in the room when you walk in. I ask if he’s tired of moving. “Oh yes,” he says. “I just want lie down and sleep for a week.”

If You Want To Be Prepared, Study

That’s what Valerie worries about when Alex lives on his own — that he’ll get overwhelmed by details or he’ll get bullied. Valerie always assumed Alex would move out. But she hasn’t always been confident he’d be able to manage once he did. So she developed ways to help him practice while he was still living at home. “We’ve treated his bedroom as an apartment,” Valerie says.

Alex had a refrigerator and a microwave in his bedroom. There was a mailbox outside the door to help him learn to sort junk mail. Valerie says the goal was to teach him processes. “We’ve tried to teach him: start here and there and there,” Valerie says. “And try not to let stuff get to a point to where it piles up. Because if it does, then you’re not going to know where to start. He will shut down, is what he does.”

People on the autism spectrum have to figure out different ways to make their days work. Moving into the new apartment, Valerie says Alex may need some visual reminders to keep him on track. “I’ve actually known some on the spectrum that have a schedule from the minute they get up to the minute they go to bed at night,” Valerie says.

Although this is probably going to be really stressful to begin with, I'll pull through.

It’s actually broken way down into daily flow charts. For example, you start by knowing how much time a shower takes. Then you know that if you take a shower, you'll have that much less time to do other things, and if you skip it, you'll have that much more. The Brenners haven’t had to do that kind of charting with Alex yet, but Valerie says they may have to.

Alex says he knows his mom feels scared by all the sudden changes. “As far as my Dad goes, I think he’s more realistic. He’s thinking, ‘you know what, you’re going to be able to do this.’” I ask Alex what he’d like to tell his parents.

“I want to say that, although this is probably going to be really stressful to begin with. Yeah, I’ll screw up at times. I mean, I’m not a fricking robot or anything. I’m bound to make mistakes. But I’ll pull through.”

Progress Report

A month after Alex starts school, I stop by to visit. He'd finished his only class for the day, physics. That's his toughest class, but he’s found someone to tutor him. Most days he goes to school in the morning and then spends his afternoons and evenings studying.

The University of Washington, he says, is much harder than the community college he went to. Plus he has to advocate for himself, which is a totally new experience for him. When Alex had trouble dealing with complicated situations in the past, he had his parents to lean on. If he needed to make an appointment with a teacher, he’d ask his parents to do it. “Now I’m learning how to do it myself,” he says.

It's a first for him, resolving his own problems and figuring out a routine. He says he likes making his own schedule. “You know, it’s like you can mold it kind of like clay. You can mold into any shape you want. Any shape you please. You can just have a five o’clock breakfast or something. Or pizza for breakfast! I had that once.” He never did that at home.

Alex and his roommate have decorated how they like, and they’ve arranged the furniture in a way that works for them. I ask Alex if he ever gets homesick. “I miss certain parts of home,” he says. “My dog. And spending a little bit of time with parents. But I think I’m prepared to live on my own.”

One of the first indicators will be his grades. They come out in a few weeks. Alex is a part-time student now. He’ll go full time when he and his parents decide he’s ready. He hopes to graduate in 2016. If he does he’ll be the first among his autism support group to graduate from a four-year university.

Funding for Coming Of Age With Autism was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund.  Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern, the KUOW Board of Directors and Listener Subscribers.