AILSA CHANG, HOST:
We know a lot more about children with autism spectrum disorders than we did a decade ago. Still, nationwide, students with autism are enrolling in college in relatively low numbers, even compared to students with other disabilities. WNYC's Yasmeen Khan met one high school senior in Brooklyn who's part of a program aimed at changing those rates of success.
YASMEEN KHAN, BYLINE: Colin Ozeki's education in the public schools has included things the rest of us may take for granted.
COLIN OZEKI: I just started observing behaviors of people.
KHAN: Back in eighth or ninth grade, one scenario provided a breakthrough in terms of understanding that behavior.
OZEKI: When dudes go to the bathroom and there's an odd number of urinals, right?
KHAN: He noticed when there are five guys and five urinals...
OZEKI: First guy goes to number one, second guy goes to number five, third guy goes to number three. The other two guys have to wait.
KHAN: And this urinal issue unlocked something.
OZEKI: I guess there are these random social norms or whatever that just - people figure out.
KHAN: Since kindergarten, Colin's attended school with a majority of students who don't have autism. What's made this possible is a program he's in called ASD Nest. ASD refers to students with autism spectrum disorder, and it's meant he's had access to the same coursework as the general student population. Which is key because Colin's good at school. He's on track to graduate this year from Millennium Brooklyn High School with an advanced diploma. When the program launched in 2003, the national numbers for students with autism didn't look good.
DOROTHY SIEGEL: Even brighter kids had really terrible outcomes.
KHAN: Dorothy Siegel from NYU helped found ASD Nest with the key concept of inclusion. Here's what a Nest classroom looks like - four children on the autism spectrum learning alongside a dozen or more of their non-disabled peers, with two teachers plus other supports. An underlying philosophy of this model is that education - the classroom - can be the best way to treat autism.
SIEGEL: Every kid, if they had the ability to do grade-level academic work, there was no reason why they couldn't go to college or some serious vocational training. It's not like we were saying, oh, well, this child will do well if he can count change for the bus. No.
KHAN: To be successful in class, Colin's received coaching from lots of adults.
OZEKI: I remember the teachers constantly linked my constant missing of homework assignments to me being disorganized. I don't know if you remember that.
KHAN: Here Colin's talking to his school's assistant principal for special education, Lindsey Baumgarten.
LINDSEY BAUMGARTEN: I remember I used to make you undo your book bags - organized.
OZEKI: Oh, no.
BAUMGARTEN: You didn't like it very much.
OZEKI: The PTSD, it's coming back (laughter).
KHAN: Organizing, getting Colin to write down homework assignments, dressing appropriately for the cold weather - these were issues that required conversations and counseling. Even in his best subject - math - his teacher Brittany Murdock had to work very closely with him.
BRITTANY MURDOCK: His biggest issue was not being able to show work.
KHAN: Colin would make fast calculations, but he would kind of talk out loud while he was doing it.
MURDOCK: So I used to kind of just jot down something he said along the way. Then he was able to kind of, like, go back and, like, slow himself down a bit. Oh, wait, wait, wait, no, I've got this here.
KHAN: During tests, Murdock arranged for Colin to have someone else write down his work. But some of the biggest challenges Colin's been working on relate to his outbursts, triggered by things like a change in the school schedule or Colin being hard on himself for making a mistake. These outbursts often involved some form of self-harm.
OZEKI: I think I might have stabbed myself a few times.
BAUMGARTEN: Punching yourself.
OZEKI: Yeah, might have. Maybe I banged my head on the table or wall a few times.
KHAN: These incidents rarely happen now. They were more common in ninth and 10th grade and before that, in middle school.
CARLIE CAMARDA: In ninth grade, I don't know, like, just didn't, like, have confidence in himself.
KHAN: This is Carlie Camarda talking with her twin brother Tommy. There are also seniors with Colin and have been friends with him since seventh grade. Tommy says where Colin might have outbursts every class period in middle school, he's now the classmate who fully participates.
TOMMY CAMARDA: Well, you probably know Colin has a very high, like, scholastic aptitude.
CAMARDA: Oh, yeah. He's really extremely smart.
CAMARDA: Yeah, much smarter than any kid in the class. And he's able to use that to explain things to us.
KHAN: Have you ever seen him play the piano?
CAMARDA: Oh, my God, he's extremely talented.
KHAN: Colin first took piano lessons starting in seventh grade. That was one of his hardest years before people started to make sense to him. He taught himself the "Maple Leaf Rag" watching YouTube videos.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
KHAN: When Colin started the Nest program, it was only in its second year at one New York City school. Over nearly 15 years, it's grown to 39 schools serving more than a thousand students. Colin's part of the first wave that's getting sent off into the world. For NPR News, I'm Yasmeen Khan in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.