Autism activist

Local mother of autistic Butte College student works to help make college life easier for those with autism

Butte College photography student Coby Walters-Fournier chats with his mother, local autism activist Merlinda Fournier, in front of a downtown café. Now 21, Walters-Fournier was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder when he was 10 years old.

Butte College photography student Coby Walters-Fournier chats with his mother, local autism activist Merlinda Fournier, in front of a downtown café. Now 21, Walters-Fournier was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder when he was 10 years old.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

The word “autistic” conjures up different things for different people. One might have an image of someone erupting into surprising bursts of too-loud, indecipherable speech, or of a person intellectually gifted in a certain area—say, math, computer science or music—who lacks conventional social skills, such as making eye contact and being able to read body language. Individuals identified with Asperger’s syndrome—one of the conditions on a list of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs)—would fit into this second category.

Fact is, those who are diagnosed as being somewhere on the “autism spectrum” differ as much from one another as people who have not been identified as such. And some of them may be so mildly affected as to be virtually indistinguishable from the general population, the mythical “normal people.”

Merlinda Fournier (pronounced “Forn-yer”) is a longtime advocate for people identified as having an ASD, beginning with her son, 21-year-old Coby Walters-Fournier, a photography student at Butte College. Walters-Fournier was diagnosed with an ASD when he was 10 years old.

“He’s been described as having high-functioning, ‘atypical autism,’ ” Fournier said. “He didn’t fit any category.”

When Walters-Fournier began attending Butte College as a precocious but shy, home-schooled 14-year-old in need of the intellectual challenge that college classes would provide, his mother registered alongside him, acting as an advocate as he navigated the challenges of college life.

“I went with him [to class] for a couple of years,” said Fournier recently of her son, who is an accomplished nature photographer. (Walters-Fournier has shown his work at a number of North State venues, including the Vagabond Rose and the de Young Museum in San Francisco.)

Fournier pointed out that the way a building is constructed, for instance, can become an obstacle for a person with an ASD. For some, a throng of unfamiliar people can become an overwhelming, impassable gauntlet; sometimes, even passing the threshold of a particular doorway can be so anxiety-provoking as to be impossible.

She no longer attends classes with her son (“From the age of 18, 19, 20, they don’t want their mom there anymore, which is very natural,” offered Fournier), but Fournier stepped in fairly recently to speak with one of her son’s instructors to get permission for him “to be late every day to class so he wouldn’t have to deal with the ‘moosh’ of people coming in and going out” of the building in which the class was held.

The building, she said, was “poorly designed,” making the entry area to the class at rush times so overwhelmingly chaotic and jam-packed with people coming and going that her son simply could not attempt it.

“And he wanted to go to that class, but there was no way he could deal with the transition [going from outside the building into the classroom],” Fournier said.

Fournier’s devoted advocacy and activism has helped her bright son—who has lived independently with a roommate for the past year—make the transition from childhood to adulthood, and be a successful college student.

Fournier was responsible for bringing Phoenix autism educator Susan Golubock to speak at Butte College in April, which was National Autism Awareness Month. Golubock, who has Asperger’s syndrome, spoke about the need for increased support for college students with autism.


In addition to helping her son, Fournier is becoming recognized as a mover and shaker in the larger world of local autism activism.

Besides founding Butte College’s Autism Activism Club in June 2010, Fournier regularly speaks to Butte College classrooms on the unique challenges faced by autistic students, and she has brought several speakers to the college’s campus—including Cindy Carlson, local autism/ADHD expert and director of Rose Scott Open-Structured School; and Phoenix autism educator Susan Golubock—to share their unique perspectives on the needs of college students with autism.

“In an effort to try to get services for her son and other people, Merlinda started this club at Butte College,” said Juliet Bartel, a local therapist and Butte College teacher who taught the Communication for the Helping Professions class that Fournier took last semester.

Part of Fournier’s continuing “tireless advocacy,” Bartel offered, is “possibly to apply for a grant to do her own foundation, to bring experts in the field to educate the public and advocate for more services, so [autistic] people as they grow up and become adults can find meaningful employment and become part of our society.”

While the jury is still out on the causes of autism (speculation ranges from diet to genetics to vaccines), according to an early-May online news report from ABC News, “The most recent data puts the prevalence of autism in children in the U.S. at about one in 100.” And those children will grow into adults; many will go to college.

Adults with ASDs are already showing up in colleges in higher numbers than in the past. Sarah May, community program specialist for local Area Board 2 of the State Council on Developmental Disabilities, which monitors the North State’s Far Northern Regional Center, is seeing a “big trend” of “people with developmental disabilities going to college. People with autism are also accessing post-secondary education.

“I see Merlinda educating people about the [autistic] students who are coming into post-secondary schooling,” said May, who has worked with Fournier and her son over the past several years through Far Northern. “Merlinda is an example of an active parent … a strong parent who’s an advocate because she’s lived and breathed the role as a parent who’s helping her son see and access the resources available to him. And I always see Merlinda advocating for the larger community, not just her son.”

A lack of self-advocacy—the ability to ask for help—said May, is a classic trait of autistic individuals.

Fournier is working to create a peer-mentoring program for what she noted is a growing number of Butte College students with ASDs, whereby they can have “peer coaches” available to bounce things off of and help them navigate the ins and outs of college. Recent research has shown that peer mentoring is a successful, inexpensive intervention for autistic college students.

“In our society, we desperately need places … where people with good hearts can reach out to the autistic community, and it [the autistic population] is going to be really big, and really different,” said Fournier. “And our culture hasn’t liked things that are really different.

“Ultimately, the question is: How can these groups end up benefiting society?”