Students with autism may face challenges at college, but that doesn’t mean they all struggle in the same ways.
“The saying is, ‘If you met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” said David Thomas, the associate director of student services at Temple University’s Disability Resources and Services. “What would be appropriate for one person with autism might be vastly different for another.”
DRS connects students to clubs and programs, like SHOUT Peer Mentors, Social Xchanges and Eye to Eye to break down environmental barriers students with autism spectrum disorder may face so they can succeed in college. These barriers can be social, like anxiety when choosing groups in class or asking for help, or academic, like being prone to distraction and needing extra time on assignments or exams.
SHOUT Peer Mentors is a student-led mentoring program open for, but not exclusive to students with autism. Social Xchanges is a support group for students on the spectrum that fosters conversations and hosts events like pizza nights and bowling trips. Eye to Eye is a peer mentoring group that pairs college students with learning differences and learning disabilities with children. Students with ASD who also have other learning differences or disabilities may choose to join Eye to Eye.
Ian Fay, an undeclared sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts with Asperger’s syndrome, uses DRS accommodations for extra time on assignments and exams. Asperger’s syndrome is a milder form of ASD often characterized by high intelligence and lacking social skills, according to the Associated Press.
“They are pretty much ride or die with anyone who has disabilities,” Fay said. “If I feel it’s hindering at times, it’s good to have DRS to lean back on to perform as well as I can.”
Fay uses slam poetry to educate others about autism. As a poet for Babel Poetry Collective, an award-winning slam poetry club, he feels comfortable with members of the group despite other social challenges in college, he said.
“I do struggle in situations, but…it doesn’t hurt me,” Fay added. “It’s just the way that I am.”
The DRS’ comprehensive approach to classroom accessibility, which focuses on a universal design, sets it apart from services at other universities, Thomas said. Universal design is a concept that works for people of all abilities without needing to make modifications for certain individuals, according to the Universal Design Project, a Virginia-based nonprofit aiming to make communities more welcome to people with disabilities.
“Universal design for learning is one of the things we work with,” Thomas said. “If you design your class this way, then you don’t need to worry about this accommodation, because it’s already there and everyone can access it.”
One helpful strategy a professor can use is to assign groups in group projects, rather than give students the freedom to do so themselves, he added.
“For someone who has a social impairment, finding groups may be scary,” Thomas said. “Assigning groups can take out that question and facilitate that.”
Students with autism can apply to the Leadership and Career Studies program, a four-year certificate program in the Institute on Disabilities.
Students are given a coach, an undergraduate student who offers them academic support and social assistance in student organizations and activities, to supervise them through the program.
The program is non-degree, but it offers career training and employment at the end of the four years, said Kathy Miller, the director of community services at the Institute on Disabilities.
“The need [for more support] was seen for students who are non-traditional students, who have intellectual disabilities or are on the spectrum,” Miller added. “It’s pretty much the same outcomes for those students to mature and become self-determined young adults and citizens, prepared to enter the world of work.”
Some students with ASD may need extra time to transition to college, and the Leadership and Career Studies coaches can help them through this, Miller said.
“Like every other student who comes to college, the hope is that you’ll be able to find a job when you graduate and live on your own and contribute to society,” Miller added.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tara Doll contributed reporting.