More Colleges Expanding Programs For Students On Autism Spectrum
Planning a route, getting gas and changing a flat tire don’t sound challenging to most young adults, but for students on the autism spectrum at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, FL, it was one of the greatest tests of their independence. Autism Spectrum Disorder is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year a group of students successfully drove by themselves from Pensacola to a conference in New Orleans after guidance from the university’s Autism Inclusion Program. And West Florida isn’t the only school integrating these students.
Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have always been on college campuses, but with the lack of screening technologies just a few years ago, they struggled through schooling virtually invisible. Today, however, the number of children on the spectrum has risen from 1 in 150 to 1 in 88 in less than ten years, and colleges are beginning to acknowledge that these young adults are eager to receive their college degrees.
The Harvard Review of Psychiatry recently released summaries of the latest findings in ASD research and highlighted that there is a significant upsurge of people with ASD arriving on college campuses. It is difficult to pinpoint just how great this increase is, however, because many students choose not reveal this disorder according to Jane Brown Thierfeld, Ed.D, co-Director of College Autism Spectrum, an organization of professionals who assist students with ASD and their families and author of “The Parent’s Guide to College for Students on the Autism Spectrum.” For every student receiving special services, there are 1-2 on that same campus who have not identified themselves to anyone, she says. According to Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, lead author of the review, we are only seeing the tip of the ice berg in terms of the number of these students seeking to access higher education.
With computers taking over jobs typically held by people on the spectrum, in areas like postal services and train operations, it is imperative that these perfectly capable students go on to earn degrees. Colleges and universities across the country have established programs to ensure that they will get enhanced services like academic and executive functioning tutoring, anxiety reduction instruction and social skill workshops. Most don’t need all these support services, however, and simply sign up for what meets their individual needs. The average program runs about $3,000 per semester on top of tuition.
How The Schools Are Responding
Rochester Institute of Technology is a co-op school, meaning that they require students to have real, paid work experience before they can graduate, and attracts about 20-30 students on the spectrum each year. The Spectrum Support Program there specializes in job preparation and offers a 15 week program involving in-depth seminars on job interviews, networking, resume building, behavioral based interview questions and body language tips that bolster students’ confidence in the job search process. RIT caters to the more independent, high-functioning students. If a child has trouble waking up in the morning or remembering to take his/her medication, for example, RIT does not have someone who lives in the dorm knocking on their door.
“Every program looks very different, and families need to know how much time students will spend with program staff,” says Lurie Ackles, director of the RIT program. “It’s equally important to know what a program is not going to do.” Students meet with the staff at most three hours per week—one-hour group meetings and two one-hour individual meetings. First year students pay up to $1,600 per term at RIT on top of tuition, and upperclassmen with less support can pay up to $1,400.
For students looking for special social services, Mercyhurst University in Erie, PA offers an entire residence hall devoted to the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM) program. It is a Living Learning Environment that houses twenty-five students on the spectrum and one graduate student mentor. They provide optional meal gatherings, coordinate Asperger support group meetings, and group outings to events on and off campus. Dr. Brown remembers a student telling her that living in the Mercyhurst community was the first time she could suggest watching a Disney movie on a Friday night without people laughing at her.
There are, however, schools like Rutgers University that aim to totally mainstream their students on the spectrum. Rutgers students can be placed in dorms anywhere on campus and take any classes. “We want them to function as Rutgers students because they came here to be Rutgers students,” says Pam Lubbers, coordinator of College Support Program for Students on the Autism Support Spectrum (CAPS) at the university. The fee at Rutgers will be $3,000 in January.
Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, FL, will receive its first student this coming fall and offers a very individualized plan. Each student has a unique plan of support based on what they need assistance with, which always evolves over time. This school will offer 10 hour per week peer mentoring, monitored study hall two hours a day, five days per week, weekly psychoeducational group meetings, physical/occupational therapy sessions and have someone on call for 24 hours. They also plan to have students complete volunteer or paid work experience before they graduate so they can gain experience in the interviewing process, resume writing, working under a supervisor and with co-workers while they have support. The cost for these services is $8,000 on top of tuition.
Finding The Right Fit
Although there is no “one size fits all” program, each school offers something unique that works for the student in conjunction with the campus culture. “There has to be a really good match between the student and the whole university, not just the program,” says Susan Kabot, Executive Director at Autism Institute of Nova Southeastern University. “Look at the size of the campus, how easy it is to navigate, the number of students, class size and that the type of support offered is what matches what you think your child will need in a new, unfamiliar environment.”
In the future, Pinder hopes to see more schools offer summer transition programs. So far the field has done an excellent job in transitioning students from pre-school to elementary and so on, but lags when it comes from helping them make the leap from secondary school to college, according to Pinder’s review. It’s also a good time to assess whether or not students are ready to make the jump, and could wind up saving parents a year’s worth of tuition.Boston College Summer Boot Camp is already hosting a program run by the Judge Baker Children’s Center called Next Steps, funded in part by the Flutie Foundation designed to provide students with high functioning autism spectrum disorder the communication and social skills they are going to need to function on a college campus.
“The reality is, students on the spectrum are going to be your next door neighbor, the person in the cubicle next to you and the parents of your kids’ friends,” says Dr. Brown. “As long as you can understand the possibility of some social awkwardness, then people on the spectrum are equally as prepared and qualified.”