Derek Volk to share experiences raising son on autism spectrum

The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders in the United States has skyrocketed the last 20 years. In 2000, autism affected 1 in 150 8-year-olds. By 2012, that number was 1 in 68, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Individuals with autism are entering college at an unprecedented rate, and higher education institutions are striving to provide accommodations and services to meet their educational, social and emotional needs.

That includes the University of Maine, where Sara Henry, director of Student Accessibility Services, says the number of students with autism coming to her office has nearly doubled in the past five years—from 22 in 2013 to more than 40 so far this school year.

“Here’s the caveat. The count represents only the students who come to see us,” Henry says. “Many more students who are on the spectrum may be at UMaine, some who have been diagnosed and others who have not, and not everyone accesses the available services.”

To provide perspective, on April 27, Derek Volk, author of “Chasing the Rabbit: A Dad’s Life Raising a Son on the Spectrum” will give a free, public talk at UMaine. Volk, a businessman who’s married to state Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough, says the title comes from a metaphor he uses to describe the life of their son, Dylan Volk.

“I always compared Dylan to a greyhound chasing the rabbit around the dog track,” he says. “The rabbit represents normal. He’ll do anything to catch the rabbit, he’ll exhaust himself, but it is always just out of reach.”

The father and son frequently speak at conferences across the country and discuss some of the more difficult aspects of living with autism, including issues Dylan Volk has had maintaining a job and his run-ins with the law.

“Everyone will take something different from it,” says Volk. “Educators will understand that it’s a spectrum, so you have to learn what makes a person with autism tick. They’re all different. Parents will realize you’re not alone. You can get through this.”

Getting through college can be challenging enough, says Henry. And for students with autism, those challenges are magnified.

Common issues affecting people on the spectrum include difficulty communicating, problems managing deadlines and relationships, and dealing with sensory overload. College experiences, including living in a residence hall, can be overwhelming. And Henry says problems are particularly acute for first-year students with autism.

“The difference between high school and college is immense,” Henry says. “In high school, you’re usually in one building and your classes and teachers are very structured. Then you come to University of Maine and you have to be in Neville Hall at this time for this class, find the math lab in one building and the tutor program in another. It can be a challenge figuring it out.”

Complicating matters, some people on the spectrum have additional mental health challenges, such as anxiety or attention-deficit disorder. Henry says no two cases are the same.

“You could put a thousand people with autism in an auditorium and if you talked to each one you’d have a thousand different experiences,” she says.

Student Accessibility Services provides different accommodations to individuals with a variety of disabilities, including extra time or location changes for tests, note-taking assistance and adaptive technology.

Henry says students with autism greatly benefit from regular meetings with someone to help structure their school and personal lives. Since her office has two professional staff to serve more than 650 students, educating faculty and staff about autism is a high priority, because they interact with students on a day-to-day basis.

SAS provides training to different departments, focusing on how to serve students with autism and other challenges. Another resource for faculty and professional staff is the Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research, a partnership between the Maine Department of Education and the College of Education and Human Development. MAIER’s primary mission is supporting Maine preK–12 educators with professional development and research on established best practices to educate and support children with autism spectrum disorders. The institute also recently compiled a list of links to resources for supporting college students on the spectrum and posted it to its website.

Donna Doherty, a research associate with MAIER, says providing resources to university faculty and staff is an extension of its work with elementary and secondary educators.

“An important aspect of our work is our outreach to Maine families and community members, including the UMaine community,” says Doherty. “By directing faculty to reliable and scientifically supported resources and offering educational opportunities, we hope to support the success of students with autism on campus.”

Volk’s April 27 talk is co-hosted by MAIER and SAS. While Dylan Volk is living in Los Angeles and interning in the media business, videos of him talking about his experiences will be shown. Volk says his son is working on a follow-up to “Chasing the Rabbit” that’s tentatively titled, “Bad Choices Make Good Stories: My Life with Autism.”

The talk will be held 6:30–8 p.m. Friday, April 27, in the Bangor Room at Memorial Union. Pre-registration is requested; contact Donna Doherty at MAIER, or 207.581.2468.

Contact: Casey Kelly, 207.581.3751