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Documentary spotlights autism in higher education

Published May 17, 2019

Jonathan Martin, an animation student, has spent much of his time at Cal State Long Beach preparing for a career in the film industry.

Although animators are unseen performers, giving life to on-screen characters, Martin is an important figure in a new documentary, “Autism Goes to College,” a film that shows what campus life is like for he and other students living on the autism spectrum.

“I hope they see a man who’s just trying to get through life,” Martin said.

In addition to Martin, the documentary follows students on the autism spectrum who attend UC Riverside, Cal State Fullerton and Mount San Jacinto College, showing them in classrooms, at work and in family settings. The documentary also provides time for discussions of obstacles that can be particularly imposing for collegians on the autism spectrum.

college student with autism

The documentary points out that most college students living with autism spectrum disorder don’t disclose their status when they apply to school, and tend not to do so until a personal crisis occurs. Another potential source of friction exists when neurotypical students are surprised and unprepared to live with a roommate who is on the spectrum.

“Autism Goes to College” features a segment that gives educators a chance to anonymously discuss their concerns, such as trying to find a balance between time spent helping special needs students and serving others in the classroom.

“Hopefully, our film is a conversation starter and a resource for families,” director Erik Linthorst said.

“Autism Goes to College” highlights the students’ achievements. In one sequence, Cal State Long Beach School of Art Director Aubry Mintz recalls a time when Martin successfully animated an animal’s moving tail.

“I think it’s definitely great to show that there are students on the spectrum who are working alongside what people might call ‘typical students,’ and they are succeeding in the same way,” said Mintz, who also is one of Martin’s instructors.

Martin has aspired to a career in animation since his high school days.

“The fact that the characters are moving on the paper, that you do one frame at a time … when it moves on screen it’s very emotional, very appealing,” he said of his attraction to animation.

“Autism Goes to College” also shows Martin chatting with LIFE Project Autism Services Associate Ilene Gonzalez. Created in 2009, the LIFE Project is a service for students with autism spectrum disorder and similar conditions. The Life Project offers peer coaching, weekly workshops and parent seminars to help students through a panoply of life events, such as campus life, keeping friendships, dating and getting a job.

 “Autism looks so different from one person to the next, so it’s very important that they have that individual support,” she said.

There are about 140 Cal State Long Beach students who are known to have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, but the number of students actually living with the condition is likely much higher, Gonzalez said.

Martin, who is set to graduate this month, gave a positive review to his experiences with the LIFE Project.

 “I think they help us very well,” Martin said. “You’ve just go to make the effort to seek out their help, and they’ll help you.”

“Autism Goes to College” premiered April 17 in Santa Monica, and screened later that month as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival. An additional screening is set for June 6 at UC Riverside. The documentary’s executive producer is Jan Blacher, associate dean of the Graduate School of Education at UC Riverside.

Thus far, the film has attracted audiences larger than 250 people, including parents of children on the autism spectrum and disability services professionals, Linthorst said.

“We’ve been really happy that exactly the people that we’re making the film for have been finding it and coming to see it,” he said.

I don’t know if we have an overall policy on mentioning other schools, but I thought the acknowledgement here would be a courtesy to another state campus