As the college broadens its services for those with autism, one staff member with the disorder exemplifies what the autism community gives back.

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Institutionalizing Support for the Autism Community

June 15, 2012

Michael Watson, Volunteer, Brooklyn College Men’s Basketball Team

Michael Watson, Volunteer, Brooklyn College Men’s Basketball Team

He's called the mayor of Brooklyn College. To be sure, he's a people person. So on the first day of spring break, Michael Watson seems a bit bored. The energy on campus is a tad too drab, a notion he characteristically — and repeatedly — sums up with one word.

"Quiet," he keeps saying as he makes a circuitous route through the West Quad Center and back to his post in the dean's office of the School of Education.

He's a little disappointed because he thrives amidst the bustle, which might be somewhat surprising to some because Watson is autistic. For a dozen years, he has been working in the School of Education, where he has cemented his role as a venerable and indispensable Guy Friday. He also volunteers for the men's basketball team.

His presence on campus is conspicuous, not because of his disability but due to his omnipresence at college events, his well-worn bright-yellow L.A. Lakers jerseys, and his penchant for popping into various offices to debate the New York Knicks' latest coaching quandary or to crack a few jokes.

But if Watson is a highly visible example of an autistic person in the college community, his peers in the student population are largely the opposite. According to the Center for Student Disability Services, there are eight self-identified autistic students on campus, but likely many more who either don't identify themselves or who may be undiagnosed. Most have a high-functioning form of the disorder but may have some speech, social and executive function (planning, problem-solving, multitasking) deficits that typically warrant the need for support. Thanks to a $19,000 grant the college recently received from CUNY's university dean for health and human services, those students can now receive more coordinated and holistic assistance.

Brooklyn College's Assistant Athletics Director and head women's basketball coach Alex Lang discusses Michael Watson's devotion to all things related to Brooklyn College Athletics.

If recent numbers reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bear out, the college, and most other higher-education institutions across the country, may see many, many more students who are on the autistic spectrum in the future. According to a March report by the federal agency, one in 88 American children has some form of the disorder, a 23 percent increase since its last report in 2009.

The grant — which ends this month (although college officials who work with autistic students hope its legacy will be some institutionalization of their efforts) — funds training for faculty and staff members who work with autistic students, a mentor program for students with the condition, and some marketing efforts so that all students know that help is available.

"College students on the spectrum have to self advocate," explains Susan Longtin, co-director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Autism Spectrum Disorders. "That's very different from their experience in high school, where their teachers know about their diagnosis and they are given very specific support according to their needs. In college, they have no such network."

Longtin and the co-author of the grant, Ilene Tannenbaum, director of the Health Clinic, are hoping to bring together departments like theirs, the Magner Center for Career Development and Internships, Personal Counseling, the Center for Student Disability Services and the Learning Center to better coordinate support.

"Everyone has the right to reach their potential," says Longtin. "Some people just need a lot more support than others."

And some people, like Watson, prove that once given some support, they will give back a lot more.

Deborah Shanley, dean of the School of Education and Watson's boss, remembers when she first met him, her first day at the college. "This man was sitting on a chair by the file cabinets and I asked him who he was," she recalls. "He wouldn't speak to me. He just sat there like a bump on a log with no eye contact. I told him I'm not moving until he comes around. One day I saw this little movement in his eye and I said, I gotcha."

Watson, whose reticence is a part of his disorder, had been participating in Brooklyn Transitions, a program housed in the School of Education that aims to help young adults with disabilities gain life skills and employment. Shanley, who has a background in special education, talked to officials with the program, as well as Watson's mother, and decided that he could work for her.

Initially, Shanley and officials with the transition program helped Watson with some travel training and time-management skills. They gave him a beeper so that they could track his whereabouts. "I knew it would work," says Shanley, known affectionately to Watson as Didi. "Michael showed us he could do it."

He also showed them he could thrive. Through his love of basketball, he quickly found a home with the college's men's team as a volunteer, and from there he attached himself to most of the other sports as well.

Alex Lang, assistant director of Brooklyn College Athletics, says that whenever there is an event or some work to be done for the teams, Watson often out-hustles the paid staff. "Mike will step in and help without being asked," he says.

In fact, Lang believes there may have been no bigger Brooklyn College Athletics booster in the history of the college. In the time he has worked here, Watson — who every day sports a CUNYAC championship ring that he earned with the men's basketball team in 2009 and 2010 — has missed precious few games, home or away. "He also remembers every single player who has ever played for any of our teams. He remembers people I don't," says Lang.

And, according to Shanley, he helps us remember what we value.

Ultimately, "Michael is helping us walk the walk," she explains. "Not only are we supposed to be preparing our students to live and work among all members of society, but our strategic plan talks about fostering an inclusive community. I can't think of a better way to model that."

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