Autistic piano prodigy out at Berklee after Colorado campaign helps him realize his dreams

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DENVER -- Thousands of autistic children are expected to enroll in college, but are the nation’s colleges and universities ready for them?

Researchers say a growing number of academic institutions are implementing programs that help autistic students enjoy a positive experience while learning skills that will enable them to share their talents with society.

Colorado schools are making strides in designing programs that are showing success. Unfortunately, as many other schools take the first steps to accommodate the growing number of autistic students who enroll in college, problems are inevitable.

Ben Jenkins of Englewood is one of Colorado’s most noted teens.

The piano prodigy developed a huge following, drew the attention of the Ellen DeGeneres Show and received donations from around the world to enable him to realize his dream of attending the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Jenkins beat incredible odds. When he was only three doctors said he would never speak and he would be placed in an institution.

But years of therapy with Dr. Annette Nunez, author of the autism book “Friendship Is”  changed that.

Jenkins also played concerts to raise tuition money.  Berklee stepped in and offered him a full scholarship. While Jenkins succeeded academically, he said socially, things were difficult.

Jenkins said a fellow student secretly videotaped him as he sang and danced during a moment of fun in the cafeteria then put it on YouTube.

He said, “(the student) even shared it on Facebook with some vulgar comments.” Knowing the school does not condone such behavior, Jenkins did not report the incident, hoping to develop better relationships with other students.

While he said he did make friends on campus and one even stepped in to defend him, he still felt largely ignored and alone.

Jenkins was wildly popular at Denver’s noted School Of The Arts and was voted Prom King.

Principal William Kohut described Jenkins as a model student and said “he was just a wonderful kid.”

Jenkins’ mother Pam Nevins said, “This was a real hard rude awakening for him and for me that he had to go to a place where being different isn't very easy.”

Jenkins is back in Colorado now and will not return to the Boston campus. The college said he wore out his welcome when he violated school policy by pulling down notices on a bulletin board and using threatening language toward a staff member.

Dr. Nunez said the staff misinterpreted what he meant. “Ben would never hurt anybody. We do not condone his behavior however there needs to be some strategies in place to prevent the behavior.”

Berklee told FOX31 Denver the school does not comment on any student's personal case, but did explain that they maintain a strong Disabilities Services  staff and place a high priority on doing all they can for autistic students.

Still, Nunez said the college discriminated against Jenkins by moving him to a sparse dorm room, without sufficient heat for a short time or a closet, and for asking the freshman to move off campus.

At issue: The rights of every academic institution to take steps they feel are appropriate to protect all students on campus while at the same time truly understanding the unique ways in which autistic students communicate.

Dr. Nunez said, “People were constantly teasing him, ignoring him, not helping. He probably reached his limit.”

Experts say these kinds of problems are likely to become more common. As we're learning more about autism in children, treatment is improving. That means more students like Jenkins will be heading to college in the coming decades.

Colorado State University’s model program, Opportunities for Postsecondary Success (OPS) is showing that autistic students can merge with others on campus and succeed.

With stellar grades in computing technology, autistic senior Jackson Lewis Hopkins is thriving at CSU. He said the program is with him every step of the way. “They'll even talk to me about things outside of academics like if I was having trouble with friends.”

OPS director Julia Kothe said, “What's unique about our program is we look at the whole student, so we're not just looking at what's happening in the classroom.”

CSU also educates other students about the benefits of embracing diversity.

The number of students applying to CSU has quadrupled over the past few years. Experts say focusing on their abilities can turn out to be a learning experience for everyone.

“They think outside the box and that's what our world needs,” Kothe said.

Jenkins said he is unable to find off-campus housing in Boston that his family can afford, especially at this point of the school year, so he will not return and stay in Denver.

Instead of studying music on campus, he does chores and ponders his next step saying, “I guess I’ll find an online college.”

His mother said the whole experience has changed him from the innocent teen he once was to a tougher version of himself now jaded and less optimistic about the world. “What I feel the most upset about is the way Ben feels about himself. He's worked so hard.”

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