LEE - Entering his second year of college, Austin Herzig is exploring the boundaries of independence in new and exciting ways.
He no longer lives with his parents and his new lifestyle means juggling a lot of responsibilities: There is the demanding coursework, he knows he can be better at housekeeping and saving money; and college is also an opportunity to form long-lasting friendships and more intimate relationships.
This new phase would challenge many, but it's particuarly so for Austin, who has autism.
"I knew I wanted to live independently," he said.
Despite past struggles, Austin, 24, is challenging himself to live an independent lifestyle -- and with support, he's succeeding at his own pace.
In March, the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a study identifying a 30-percent increase of children diagonosed with autism spectrum disorder, or autism, in two years. The national study identified 1:68 children with autism, which had previously been 1:88.
Health professionals who work with children with autism say it's difficult to tell why the number has increased. But Brenda Butler, a child psychiatrist at Berkshire Medical Center, said it's likely there are more cases of high-functioning autism, where the diagnosis might not be immediately observable, similiar to Austin.
Autism is a neural developmental disorder characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restrictied and repetitive patterns of behavior. Autism is diagnosed through a specific number of observable symptoms.
The increase in cases could be attributable to a greater awareness of symptoms, Butler said, and she cautioned that autism can also be mistaken for social anxiety disorder.
"This has been a trend over the last 10 to 15 years with autism, where the diagnoses have increased and the number [has increased] dramatically," Butler said.
Jen Chaney, an autism specialist for Community Resources for People with Autism, said independent living is a common concern for parents with older children with a high-functioning form of autism.
Whether their children can live independently, Chaney said, largely depends on the individual's skills, but there are programs in Mass Rehab and the Department of Development Services that can assist people with job placement and independent living.
Austin, a native of South Africa and now a student at Berkshire Community College, is studying for his associate's degree as a social worker. In 2012, he moved to the U.S. and enrolled in the College Internship Program, a post-secondary program in Lee for young adults dealing with symptoms in the autism spectrum.
Except for a brogue South African accent -- which sounds British -- Austin is indistinguishable from other young adults. But he didn't talk until he was 4 -- and his parents thought he might be deaf. Both he and his older sister were diagnosed with autism. They struggled in school, but once put in more accomodating programs, they excelled.
Austin is passing his classes at Berkshire Community College. His sister is studying for her doctoral degree in the United Kingdom after earning her undergraduate and master's degree at the prestiguous Cambridge University.
"When I was younger ... I was fairly more isolated from everyone else," Austin said.
But he's changed in two short years. "Basically, I came with the mindset to do as much as I can. To take CIP seriously. I've been able to resolve a lot."
His parents, who were visiting from the UK this week, also have noticed a change.
"He's advocating for himself, he's much more aware of his strengths and weaknesses," his mother, Anita, said.
His father, Stephen. added, "He's much more willing to take risks, and he makes more of an effort to talk to groups."
To better deal with autism, Austin has had to better understand himself. He still gets nervous when taken outside of his comfort zone. He can get overwhelmed with schoolwork and knows he needs to pace himself.
Working with CIP, Austin has been building his confidence to ask questions. He would hesitate in the past because he didn't want to waste people's time and he wasn't sure if he made sense. Each weekend at CIP, he goes out with others, most recently to Crossgates Mall in Albany, to gain more confidence. He also works with CIP advisers.
For his parents, they also had to deal with the diagnosis and then decide what was best for their children.
"When you talk about factual information, it'll blow you away," Anita said. "When it comes to expressing their emotion, they have emotions, and they don't express as we do. They pick up all your words literally."
Anita said she focused on her children's strengths and reflected on her own strenghts and weaknesses, to find the support they needed.
Anita's daughter, a natural academic, went to school in the UK, but the mother knew her son wouldn't adjust well with the country's rigid testing-oriented education system. She searched and found a program she could trust and believe in with CIP. Austin knew he had limited opportunities in South Africa, and he agreed to make the most of it.
The Herzigs sold their home and received a $40,000 donation from two former business partners to pay for Austin's education.
Eventually, Anita knew she had to let her children grow and flourish on their own.
"It's such hard work for them to come into your world," Anita said. "You have to go on a journey to go in their world and tap into that."