Even for the most independent and outgoing of teenagers, adjusting to college can be tricky. For Spencer Griffin, a 23-year-old with Asperger's syndrome, the transition is more daunting.
Griffin has trouble processing unfamiliar social situations. He thrives academically, but logistics can stump him. He might, for example, finish a class assignment impeccably but overlook when it is due.
The start of college or a move to a new campus is a stressful time for Asperger's students, who can be overwhelmed by a new environment.
Now in his third year of community college, Griffin tells professors about his challenges the first day of the term. Most are patient and will repeat instructions for him, he said. But a few professors are slower to reconcile Griffin's brilliance on paper with his "stupid questions" about procedure.
"They'll give him looks like, 'Are you kidding? Why can't you figure out the simple thing I'm asking you to do?' " said Griffin's mother, Sharon Griffin.
The Griffins moved to Antelope last year from Southern California, and Spencer transferred to American River College from community colleges he had attended in Glendale and Pasadena.
To help her son cope with the upheaval, Sharon Griffin started a chapter of Asperger's Support for Adolescents Plus, a social support group for teens and 20-somethings with Asperger's.
Spencer Griffin had been a regular at ASAP gatherings in Southern California, where the organization was started by another Asperger's mom. He missed the camaraderie of his fellow "Aspies."
A disorder related to autism but milder Asperger's was dismissed in the past as awkwardness. It occurs in varying degrees, and early behavioral therapy can lessen its severity.
Unconventional thinkers like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are rumored to have it, and characters with Asperger's symptoms such as heightened sensitivity and repetitive behaviors are featured on the TV shows "Criminal Minds" and "The Big Bang Theory."
One of Griffin's symptoms is anxiety.
Knowing how he reacts to major changes, Sharon Griffin said, she wasn't going to pressure her son to stay enrolled at ARC if he struggled to find a niche.
"I certainly wasn't going to force him to remain somewhere he wasn't happy," she said. "But he loved the subjects, being around the other kids."
American River College disabilities counselor Louise Kronick said her office advises about 130 students with Asperger's, most of them male. With a student's permission, she will approach instructors and encourage them to check in with that student periodically.
"Some of the shyer ones don't even know the right questions to ask. But they're very bright and should be successful," Kronick said.
She has noticed the Aspies forming "tight subgroups" around common interests, especially manga and anime. What surprised her was that students in one of the cliques took up theater classes.
"They've told me that being given a script makes conversation easier," she said. Through acting, the Aspies coach themselves on human nuances such as tone, body language and emotionality.
Community college, Kronick said, "is a forgiving institution, one of the few that does not judge you by your path. We've seen lives change."
Spencer Griffin attended a private high school for students with learning disabilities, and he stays in touch with a smattering of classmates. After relocating to Antelope, though, he searched for friends like the ones he left behind.
"I think Aspies have an innate ability to get each other immediately. There's no judgment," Sharon Griffin said.
The ASAP gatherings have helped Spencer navigate socially.
The organization grew out of Ventura County, where Troy Corley, whose daughter has Asperger's, opened the first chapter in 2006. She said ASAP is a casual venue for high-functioning Aspies to meet each other and gab about their hobbies.
"What we do is not therapy. It's like a social club where you're automatically accepted," Corley said in a telephone interview.
The hardest part of organizing an ASAP meet-up, Corley said, is finding a "non-clinical place" where the attendees feel comfortable.
She doesn't direct their wide-ranging chitchat, or correct their language unless it is hurtful to somebody. She believes in stepping aside and letting the Aspies be themselves.
"I'm there to facilitate, not to parent them," Corley said.
Griffin organizes her ASAP gatherings at Lone Oak Park in Antelope.
She brings more than enough pizza and water bottles to go around, a yellow smiley-face balloon for easy spotting and a large quilt for parents to sit on.
Away from the central action, in whispers, they discuss their experiences bringing up Aspies.
One of the fathers, Bob Williams, said during a gathering at the end of July that his son teaches him to care less about impressions.
"(Aspies) are the creative thinkers because they're not as inhibited They're like all of us just 10 percent more of whatever," Williams said.
His son was so verbal that he nearly avoided a diagnosis of Asperger's. His literalness, Williams said, was the giveaway. He grasped math easily, with its clear and finite answers, but abstract ideas and social interactions baffled him.
With age, Williams' son has gotten better at detecting humor and giving it back.
He still blurts out virtually anything on his fast-moving mind.
"You're seeing all parts of him all the time which can be so charming," Williams said.
Griffin described living with her son's Asperger's as being smart enough to know a disconnect exists, but not necessarily how to overcome it.
"Their social graces did not come innately, but through trial and error. They've all been hard-won," she said.
Munching on pizza, the ASAP members bonded over everything from their shared love of certain video games to their differing appraisals of singer Cyndi Lauper's feminism. They said little about themselves personally.
A few rounds of Boggle later, Spencer Griffin brought out his guitar and crooned about the "bookworm beauty, that quirky little girl" he dreams about meeting someday.
This dream girl, he said, watches "Mystery Science Theater 3000" like he does, knows every letter in the Japanese alphabet and quotes regularly from Greek mythology.
"I know I'm not going to find my exact twin on the female side," he said. "If I did, that would be scary!"
Griffin was not always proud of his unique identity.
"I had trouble accepting there are some things I can't do, some people I just can't make understand me," he said.
He was identified as having Asperger's at age 3, his mother said. His "bizarre" methods of play showed that "he was far more interested in things than he was in people."
She said she feared the diagnosis would limit her son's potential, but that his intellect has seen him through.
He could recognize words by age 2. Instead of drawing with crayons, Spencer would manipulate them into Roman numerals. He had all the state capitals memorized as a toddler, shortly before he read the entire dictionary.
These fixations came and went for all of Spencer's childhood.
"It's almost like these kids grow up backward," Sharon Griffin said. "I had to play catch-up for some of the things he was studying."
At the same time, Spencer said, he couldn't hold eye contact until he was 12. He loves to swim, but any other sport brings out his clumsiness. Getting picked on was the norm for Spencer.
"He really thought we could read his mind, but we couldn't," Sharon said.
With each communication breakthrough, Spencer revealed himself to be atypical for an Aspie.
His ease as a performer doesn't conform to the skittish "geek" stereotype. He runs a music blog and gets a kick out of emulating accents, particularly the "Sesame Street" characters he once revered.
"I'm extremely right-brained, which honestly makes me question if I have Asperger's sometimes," Spencer said.
Spencer's mother thinks he'll be ready soon to strike out on his own, as much as she will miss nurturing and protecting him.
He has discovered a passion for linguistics and is contemplating another transfer to a four-year university farther from home.
"Miraculously, Spencer just keeps improving every year," she said. "It's like he evened out, once he made it to college."