Looking Back: Student with autism finds mentorship, success at Oakland

Note: Some of the language used to reference autism spectrum disorder in 1984 can be considered rude and disrespectful today. The Oakland Post understands that this is a sensitive manner, and all quotes have been taken directly from the April 9, 1984, edition of The Oakland Sail.

On April 9, 1984, The Oakland Sail ran a cover story on a 22-year-old student named Richard Bearse. He was graduating that spring with a bachelor’s degree in general studies and dreamed of going into an accounting assistant program.

Bearse had gone to high school at Waterford Mott and entered Oakland University in 1980.

While at OU, he worked with the university’s food provider, SAGA, aiding in the kitchen and helping with its bookkeeping. In his spare time, he enjoyed video games like “Star Trek” and “Omega Race.”

The only thing that set Bearse apart from every other OU student was the fact that he had been diagnosed with autism at the age of three.

While at Oakland, he was one of only two university students in Michigan to be diagnosed with autism.

Carl Isaacs was his first academic advisor at OU.

“I was surprised anyone autistic would get to a college level, to get mainstreamed to that level,” Isaacs said.

Linda Mah, a staff writer for The Oakland Sail, interviewed Dr. Robert S. Fink, then-director of counseling at the Graham Health Center.

Fink had advised Bearse and his family since Bearse enrolled at OU.

“Research shows trouble screening out stimulation, especially verbal stimulation,” Fink told The Oakland Sail. “Sounds are loud and jumbled. Rather than learn how to interact with others, they [people with autism] learn to withdraw.”

The article defined autism as a “handicap” that possibly occurs as a result of defects in the nervous system or in biochemical functions of the human body.

Bearse’s mother, Julia, helped her son as much as she could. She knew there was something different about Richard when he was eight months old because he was unresponsive to stimuli.

“He’d howl for hours and I’d walk the room with him,” she said. “He might not have understood why or even been aware that I was there, but just the physical contact helped.”

Reflecting back on when her son decided to go to Oakland, Julia Bearse said, “There’s nothing to describe the feeling. It’s like having your best fantasy come true.”

Isaacs acted as a middleman between Bearse and his professors. Isaacs made an effort to notify professors ahead of time that Bearse was enrolled in their classes, and would provide them with information on what autism was.

“Things were not made easy for him,” Fink said. “[Bearse’s college experience] is a striking accomplishment. The biggest accomplishment is on Richard’s part. He’s bright and had drive and determination to be successful.”

Julia Bearse praised the OU community for how her son was treated.

“We’re very fortunate,” she said. “Wherever he ends up, someone helps him. Students have taken the time to handle him when he’s upset. For us as a family, it’s been a terrific experience. OU should be proud of itself and its students.”

Fink added that although Richard Bearse learned from the OU community, it learned from him, as well.

“I think, over time, we have gotten to know or understand him and come to understand he’s a human being first,” Fink said.

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