Chicago man’s success shows college dreams within reach for more people with autism

It was never a question whether Paris King would go to college.

The 23-year-old, who’s on the autism spectrum, adored learning — especially history — and he and his parents saw no reason why he should not continue to do this after high school.

But throughout the four years King spent his bachelor’s degree in history at Roosevelt University, he suffered setbacks that could have challenged any student. His father died. He had been mugged near his home. And his mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer that required aggressive treatment.

So when King walked across the stage and received his flat Friday in a graduation ceremony, he was cheered on by faculty, family and friends for not just thinking that a individual who has autism is effective at college, but also for overcoming tremendous personal challenges to be a role model for people with disabilities.

“Paris never has a bad attitude,” said Danielle Smith, associate director of academic achievement at Roosevelt University. “He always finds a way to do it”


Paris King, 23, who’s on the autism spectrum, loved learning and he along with his parents saw no reason why he shouldn’t continue to do so after higher school. But throughout the four decades King spent earning his bachelor’s degree in history at Roosevelt University, he endured setbacks that would have challenged any student. His dad died. King was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He had been mugged near his home. And his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer which required aggressive therapy.

King is among four pupils with autism who graduated with bachelor’s degrees from Roosevelt this year, a number that has been steadily rising for the past four decades, Smith explained.

“I came into college so I can learn more about the world we live in,” King said. “It has been an enjoyable experience, but it has been challenging.”

The increase at Roosevelt mirrors a nationwide trend of pupils with disabilities enrolling in and finishing college. Because universities can’t, by law, require pupils to report autism or other disabilities in school applications, precise numbers are tough to pin down. However, anecdotally, advocates say the huge increase in the number of people diagnosed with autism is prompting more discussions about how to offer opportunities and access to the growing population.

And subsequently, more students on the autism spectrum are chasing larger education objectives.

“It’s crucial for every person in order to gain access to lifelong learning opportunities,” said Vanda Marie Khadem, founder of the Autism Higher Education Foundation, which launched in 2008 with a mission of opening access to schooling for people on the autism spectrum.

“Parents are demanding it, and pupils are demanding it, and educators are recognizing that it,” she explained.

King, the youngest of three children, grew up in a Navy family that spanned several occasions when he was young. As a toddler growing up in San Diego, he exhibited speech flaws, sensitivity to sound and fixations with hobbies. But after a doctor’s fast evaluation wrongly determined King was not about the autism spectrum, and rather had an unspecified learning disability, his parents carried on, managing his idiosyncrasies without guidance from doctors or educators, said his mom, Patricia King.

The family moved into the Chicago region by the time Paris King was of college age. Since he struggled to concentrate and missed societal cues, he often was separated into classes for students with behavioral issues. King also became the target of bullies. At 12 years old, he had been recognized to be on the autism spectrum — a revelation that triggered mixed feelings out of his parents, his mother remembered.

“I felt reckless, since we know now, the earlier you’re in a position to get intervention and get them the assistance they need, the better they do,” Patricia King stated.

However, it also motivated Paris King’s parents to urge him and his accessibility to educational opportunities from that point on, she added.

“It was definitely from the plan for him to go to college,” she said. “We thought he had the ability … and the entire plan was supposed to encourage him as much as he had, to be certain he had the instruments he wanted”

With encouragement from his teachers at Gary Comer College Prep High School, where he graduated with honors, King applied to Roosevelt University. He and his parents sought out the university’s Academic Success Center, which works with students with disabilities to assist them fulfill the same course and wellness requirements expected of all pupils.

King started meeting twice a week for an hour with Smith, of the academic center, who was impressed with how he handled difficult missions, from term papers on ancient African tribes to readings on renewable energy. King takes longer to concentrate and get his ideas onto paper compared to some of his classmates, but he never allows his challenges stifle him, Smith said.

Patricia King said she worried that her son might eliminate attention more after his dad died during his freshman season. Eight weeks later, Paris King complained of intense dizziness and nausea. After a week in the hospital, doctors diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the brain and spinal cord. However, after doctors put him on regular medication to tackle his MS symptoms, he had been back on campus.

During his sophomore year he had been attacked on the sidewalk out his former high school by an assailant who hit him on the head with a brick and demanded the $19 money King had in his wallet. When he was a junior, his mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, which necessitated a mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy treatment.

He thrived in classes that explored world history and African-American research. And after walking past a classroom filled with students playing video games — that are one of his passions — he discovered that a network of friends in an extracurricular group referred to as the Level Up/Power Up Club.

“He’s matured a long time, and I’m very pleased with his progress,” his mom explained. “And I do believe that has to do with him continuing his education and forging ahead.”

Smith said she had been inspired to work with King and his family, due to their support and encouragement are examples of what could happen when people expect more out of people with disabilities and other disabilities.

“The more and more we talk about not just people with autism but with different disabilities, the longer we will see on campus,” she said.


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