UCLA Inspires Autistic Students in Math, Tech Fields

UCLA asked “Can Students with Autism be Scientists?” in a symposium Tuesday, connecting professors and students with special needs.

By Heather Navarro
|  Wednesday, Feb 27, 2013  |  Updated 8:36 AM PDT
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A groundbreaking program at UCLA gives young adults with autism and special needs a taste of the college experience while teaching life skills with the goal to prepare them for an independent life in the mainstream. Ted Chen reports from Westwood for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Feb. 26, 2013.

Ted Chen

A groundbreaking program at UCLA gives young adults with autism and special needs a taste of the college experience while teaching life skills with the goal to prepare them for an independent life in the mainstream. Ted Chen reports from Westwood for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Feb. 26, 2013.

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Trying to inspire autistic students in math, science and tech, educators at UCLA’s Extension program held an event on Tuesday that paired students with professors to give them a glimpse into potential future career paths.

In an event billed as the “speed dating” of college seminars, 20 autistic and special needs college students interviewed in “round-robin” fashion top professors for 15 minutes each.

UCLA is the first university to merge with Circle of Friends -- an organization pushing to bring special needs people into mainstream life -- for this one-of-a-kind event to help special-needs students get a real sense of what college is like.

"I like meeting them, knowing what they do," said Melissa Brooks, one of the students who participated in the program. "I feel like I'm a real college student."

The smiling faces of the students said it all -- they were enthusiastic about speaking with professors about topics they found inspiring, including physics, chemistry and art.

"Once you have that information, it kind of opens up some doors," said Eric Latham, the director of UCLA Pathway, a two-year certificate program for students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. "It builds confidence."

Marco Von Siebanthal, another student in the program, said the session made him feel like his own man.

"I've become more of an independent person, living on my own," Siebanthal said. "I'm trying to see which job I can get in the future to earn lots of money."

The symposium was inspired by a recent study in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders that said autistic students favor these areas of study -- known as STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But the study also said the number of autistic students applying for college is low.

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