Joseph Brennan is a bright high school senior looking forward to college next year. But because he is on the autism spectrum, he struggles with the prospect of living on his own in a dormitory.
This year, he has a chance to practice - to cook, clean, cope with roommates, handle stress, and (tricky for any college student) manage his time. He and seven other teenagers are getting that dry run in a new boarding program at the Main Line's Hill Top Preparatory School that aims to ease the way into campus life for prospective collegians with milder autism spectrum disorders.
A day school in Rosemont for children with learning disabilities, Hill Top began offering the all-year boarding program - believed to be the only one of its kind in the tristate area - on Labor Day. The students, who hail from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, stay at the school Mondays through Fridays and go home on weekends.
"It was tough at first, living in a new environment with different people," said Brennan, a 19-year-old from Reading. "But we learned to adapt and make the best of it."
Already, the experience has been transformative for Killian Herbison, 17, according to his mother. During his time at home in Eagleville, they no longer argue about homework - a huge relief that has made family life more pleasant. On top of that, "he's happy," said Margaret Herbison. "I would never have described him as happy before."
The increase in the number of young people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders has been staggering, from an estimated one in 150 in 2002 to one in 68 currently, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, more of those with them are going to college. Of those who graduate from high school, about one-third pursue a two- or four-year college education, while others get vocational training, the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University reported. Its research shows that students with autism are more likely to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and to start at a two-year college and transfer to a four-year one.
Just because students with autism may do well academically, however, does not mean they have the skills to navigate the halls of academe.
"One of the things they struggle with is being successful socially," said Thomas Needham, headmaster of Hill Top, which has 82 day students from fifth grade through a postgraduate year. Ninety percent of its graduates go on to college.
Students on the spectrum might miss social cues or misunderstand what's expected of them - perhaps, for example, being intolerant of a snoring roommate. They also tend to suffer from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behavior. So house parent Damon Ross works with the boarding students - for the time being, all males - on reducing stress, respecting others, observing boundaries, and listening.
"They're working on how do you live in a positive way with others," said Needham.
Hill Top is also looking beyond college to soft skills needed for jobs, such as making casual conversation around the coffee machine or asking about a colleague's weekend - a component that has become more important as the school focuses on high-functioning autism students.
Tuition at Hill Top is $42,000 a year. The boarding program is an additional $11,400.
Administrators hope to eventually build an actual dorm for boys and girls. In the interim, they spent $110,000 renovating the third floor of Hill Top's old stone mansion, which also houses offices and classrooms.
The three-bedroom apartment has a comfy living room with sofas, chairs, TV, and an adjoining eight-seat dining table.
"We wanted it to look as inviting as we could for the kids," said Seth Straff, a board member who oversaw the project.
The light-filled bedrooms are decorated simply, with bunk beds, a single table with chairs, and a dresser. The kitchen, while not large, is well-equipped.
Everything is spotless, thanks to the residents, who do their own chores. Dinner is whipped up by Ross, but the students wash the dishes. They straighten up every day before leaving for class and clean on Fridays before going home.
"It's not that much different from living at home," said Devaughn Easterling, 16, from West Philadelphia.
Mornings can be hectic as students get dressed and ready for school, and make a hasty breakfast, such as Brennan's favorite, frozen waffles with peanut butter. His dorm mate, Ryan Wellock, 16, specializes in grilled cheese, eggs, and French toast.
If there's a downside, the students say, it's not having enough personal space or time alone - just like at college.
Said a philosophical Brennan, "It's a huge change and adjustment."