“I needed help organizing my day, getting
into a routine. Things that other people do
naturally, I have to be taught.”
In the best-case scenario, you have a conscientious and likeable stu-
dent like Maureen Pytlik, aware of and open about her problems, willing
to work with faculty and use support services to solve them, and in the
end capable of exceptional work.
Sometimes, however, highly verbal, intense, socially inept students
with AS can be disruptive, defiant and disorganized – or, they fly so beneath
the radar that in a large first-year class, their failure to thrive may not be
noticed until it’s too late.
Alexander Coculuzzi, age 20, admits that his first year as a student
at the University of Ottawa was a bit of a disaster. As is typical for many
with AS, he is disarmingly frank about his experience. Diagnosed with
AS at age 13 (he also has ADHD), he’d been severely bullied and had
problems in the classroom throughout high school; in one incident he
punched a teacher. After being assigned an educational assistant in Grade
10, his attitude and school work turned around. With high marks in math,
he was eager to start university and live in a dorm.
In hindsight, he reflects on what went wrong. “Academically I was
ready, but I wasn’t mature enough to live on my own.” That meant not
making it to class much of the time, partying and ignoring assignments.
“I don’t remember January,” he confesses. When he did attend class, he
tended to monopolize discussion, something he wasn’t even aware he
was doing until a girl he’d befriended told him that people wanted him
to stop talking so much. “I wasn’t offended,” he says.
While slacking off isn’t an activity unique to AS students, Mr. Coc-
uluzzi’s problems were compounded by AS. Despite being given extra
time to write exams, he ended up failing two courses. “I just wasn’t in the
right mindset and didn’t realize the challenges until I was there,” he says
now. “I needed help organizing my day, getting into a routine. Things
that other people do naturally, I have to be taught.” It’s not only univer-
sity centres that offer this kind of life coaching. In Ottawa, the YMCA’s
Owl Maclure Cooperative Centre helps young people with autism and
AS cope at the postsecondary level, whether it’s organizing a schedule or
making sure they eat properly.
Ms. Pytlik is the first to acknowledge that she’s needed lots of support –
extra time and quiet rooms for exams, a peer mentor and one-on-one
interaction with professors have all helped. In fact, she came to the uni-
versity accompanied by her mother, before she even had begun classes,
and met individually with Dr. Wright and other faculty members.
“I didn’t really know what Asperger’s Syndrome was at the time,” says
Dr. Wright. “It’s Maureen who has taught me.” Since then, he has been
more than accommodating with his signaling system and encourage-
ments, making sure she feels comfortable and accepted in the classroom,
and getting her through roadblocks she has encountered in some of her
studies. “It’s a subtle business to make sure you don’t marginalize some-
one,” says Dr. Wright.
While Ms. Pytlik has excelled at the mathematical aspects of music
theory, assignments involving creativity have caused her extreme anxiety.
“To invent and create, explore human expressivity, this was new for her
and she was a bit at sea,” says Dr. Wright. While at first he felt “at a loss”
on how to help with this aspect of her course work, talking about it with
her, helping her discover her own ideas, laying out the assignment more
explicitly than he was used to doing for students, all meant a lot to Ms. Pytlik.
“I guess he thought I was worth putting up with,” she says with a shy
smile, during an interview in a quiet conference room at Carleton’s Paul
It’s the same room where Aspirations, a group of up to a dozen stu-
dents with AS, meets biweekly to socialize. Sometimes they’ll watch a
movie or TV show, talk and eat popcorn, or sometimes just relax in a safe
haven of people who share similar challenges and experiences.
Now in her fifth year of study, Ms. Pytlik has fourth-year standing
and expects to graduate with an honours bachelor of music in the fall of
2013, and with an honours bachelor of mathematics the following spring.
She wants to pursue graduate studies in the field of music perception and
cognition at McGill University. Like many with AS, she has much to con-
tribute to society. “What Maureen brings to us,” says Dr. Wright, “more
than counterbalances the challenges.”
Moira Farr is a writer and journalist who teaches magazine writing to college and
university students in Ottawa.
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