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Student Overcomes Autism Disorder to Receive Degree

An autism student receives tutoring.An autism student receives tutoring.

FALL RIVER, Mass.—When Justice Martins walks across the stage at Bristol Community College to receive his degree later this month, the Baking and Pastry Arts major will know a lot more than how to create spectacular desserts and decorate fancy cakes.

Martins, who has Aspergers Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, said he has learned the value of patience, persistence, collaboration and, most important, how to set and achieve attainable goals.

When the 21-year-old Raynham resident arrived on campus in fall 2011, he said he lacked confidence and social skills, and wondered if he’d be able to complete the intensive baking program. During his time at BCC, Martins has learned that failure is never an option, and, while it takes him longer than his peers to finish some projects, each step is a learning experience that will help prepare him for a rewarding career.

“Don’t ever give up on yourself and always follow your heart,” Martins advises, crediting the staff in the college’s Office of Disability Services and Chef Gloria Cabral, associate professor of Baking and Pastry Arts, for building his confidence and for their unfailing support and constant encouragement.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Martins continued, adding that many of his classmates have also been supportive and take the time to further explain projects and demonstrate techniques.

According to Susan Boissoneault, Dean, Office of Disability Services, there are 988 students with disabilities enrolled at the college this semester who are actively working with the office. Disabilities include Attention Deficit Disorder/ Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum, blind and visual disabilities, deaf/hard of hearing, learning disabilities, physical challenges and psychological disabilities, such as depression.

The ODS provides support services that enable academically qualified students with disabilities, such as Martins, to earn an associate degree or certificate in a variety of programs and fully participate in college life. Learning specialists are available at the college’s main campus in Fall River, as well as at satellite campuses in New Bedford, Attleboro and Taunton.

Boissoneault says the office’s most commonly used services include preparation of student semester accommodation plans, individual progress meetings with learning specialists, new and prospective student intake interviews, specialized testing, and ongoing academic advisement.

The dean adds that the most frequently requested accommodations include audio recording of class lectures, copies of class notes, extended time on tests, and reduced distraction test areas, such as a quiet study room located in the OCD office complex.

In addition to gaining knowledge, Boissoneault emphasizes that many disabled students improve their social skills, which are crucial for successful employment. For example, Martins, who entered BCC as a shy freshman lacking confidence, won praise from his peers after presenting an interesting pastry arts demonstration to a group of visiting junior high school students.

The longtime college administrator says that one of the important lessons that students who use the ODS also learn is self-advocacy. While the office does work with some parents and other advocates for incoming students, Boissoneault says that college students have to learn to become more independent, whereas in high school they were guided by program administrators, teachers and parents.

“The sooner we can meet with a student, the more seamless the transition from high school,” Boissoneault says, adding that the college’s learning specialists work with high school guidance departments, special education directors and outside agencies, such as the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, to plan a collegiate program of studies that will complement a student’s strengths and abilities.

Chef Cabral says Martins knows his limitations and what he must do to overcome challenges. For example, he requires more time to take tests so instructors provide that accommodation.

“He knows what his disability is and he knows what he needs to succeed,” she notes, adding that Martins often volunteers to help at special events to gain additional knowledge and skills.

“He’ll try anything,” the chef adds.

Chef Cabral says that the baking and pastry arts program requires a lot of work, and prepares students to work in a fast-paced industry.

“It’s not a babysitting program,” she tells, adding that, when a student is not suited for the program, rather than have the individual drop out of college, she guides them to another program that reflects their interest and skills.

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