Jane Thierfeld Brown ’79, M.A. ’81, M.S. ’86 Naiveté Can Take You Places

ABC News story on college students with Asperger’s, featuring commentary by Jane Thierfeld Brown.

Jane Thierfeld Brown’s career in disabilities services began serendipitously at URI: After working the summer of 1978 at a camp for people with disabilities, she returned to campus for her senior year and noticed wheelchair ramps being installed. The speech pathology major saw that the ramps were too steep and “naively” reported the problem to the president’s office.

To her surprise, President Frank Newman took her call and was so impressed that he put her on a newly formed campus accessibility committee. She did such a good job that on the day after commencement she was appointed to the new position of handicapped services specialist. In 1979, Brown says, URI was one of only about 20 schools with such a position.

“Naiveté can take you places,” attests Brown, now director of Student Services at UConn’s School of Law. She is also a consultant and speaker on college students with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism characterized by normal to above-average intelligence, a tendency to hyper-focus on particular topics, and difficulty reading social cues. She and colleague Lorraine Wolf recently published Students on the Autism Spectrum: A Guide for College Personnel.

Ironically, Brown’s youngest child was diagnosed with autism in 1995 at the age of three. Informed by both personal and professional experience, she brings a unique perspective to her work. “Spend 24 hours caring for someone with special needs,” says Brown, and you “understand the challenges on a very different level.”

In the last two decades, awareness and diagnosis of autism and Asperger’s have increased. The USCDC estimates one in 150 children has an autism spectrum disorder. The number of college students with Asperger’s is increasing as these children reach college age. “Many students with Asperger’s are very high functioning and therefore likely to go to college,” Brown says. Her message to colleges and universities: Be ready to teach and support this unique population so they can succeed in college and beyond.

—Barbara Caron