Monique Casbeer navigates the University of Montana campus like anyone else.
As a nontraditional student, Casbeer attended classes at UM sparsely over the past five years, working her way toward a degree in computer science. But this isn’t the first time Casbeer found herself enrolled at UM. In fact, she was pursuing the same degree in 1993.
Eager to start a career working with computers in an age when tech was booming and PCs were becoming part of daily life, Casbeer looked forward to graduating swiftly and finding employment in her field. But there was a problem — Casbeer had Asperger’s syndrome and didn’t even know it.
Casbeer completed her coursework and had one final project to work on but was ultimately unable to complete it because of differences with her professors.
“I would want to do a project a certain way, and the professor would reject my idea,” Casbeer said. “I never wound up finishing my degree because I never really was able to bond with my professors or the students I was working with.”
Casbeer knew she had a problem interacting with people, but she didn’t know why. And she’s not the only one experiencing that at UM. About 50 students on campus have Asperger’s syndrome, said Jennifer Closson, an assistant professor of communicative sciences and disorders.
For years, Casbeer met with different doctors and psychiatrists, searching for answers to a problem she didn’t fully understand. It wasn’t until she was clinically diagnosed with Asperger’s that she better understood her personality and why she behaved the way she did.
“As soon as I was diagnosed, my problems suddenly turned into answers and solutions,” she said.
Finally understanding the root of her social struggles, Casbeer began reaching out to various support resources to cope with living with Asperger's.
One of those resources, the Missoula Adult Asperger’s Support Group, focuses on people 18 and older who have, or suspect they may have, Asperger’s. They call themselves “Aspies."
Terry Lynch, who has Asperger’s syndrome, helped start the group in July 2011 with the goal of creating a place for Aspies to talk about their condition and how to cope with it. Since then, the group has maintained a consistent attendance rate and welcomes new people to the group.
“Due to the way we Aspies think, being that we don’t like change, getting people to attend the meetings can be difficult at times,” Lynch said.
Lynch said one of the main problems Aspies face is simply recognizing and identifying their problem. He said that research for Asperger’s wasn’t readily available in the United States or recognized in the medical community until the 1980s, when a resurgence of Hans Asperger’s work led to the categorization of several autism spectrum disorders.
“One of the most important things is recognizing that there is a problem,” he said. “The diagnosis for Asperger’s has been available for about 30 years, but I’ve only known that I’ve had it for three.”
Micki Howell, a frequent attendee of the group meetings, said she noticed steady improvements with herself and others who attend and choose to speak out about how they feel.
“After attending these sessions, people were slowly able to open up and discuss issues that would normally be uncomfortable to talk about,” Howell said.
She said the sessions range from watching movies to reading books to simply talking about anything on their minds.
Closson said one in 88 people have a form of autism in the United States. She said that number likely holds at UM.
Closson helps facilitate MOSSAIC, a program designed to help students with Asperger’s and other autism-related disorders. MOSSAIC meets twice a week and partners students with an upperclassman peer to help familiarize them with the school.
If a student needs help with organizing schedules, problem solving, emailing, online banking or anything else, Closson said the upperclassman partners will provide it for them.
“I think transitions are hard for most people, especially transitioning to college,” she said. “But it can be even harder for those who are challenged socially, and to have a support system in place can really change the feel of the whole college experience.”