Marc Ellison, Ed.D. is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and an approved Licensed Professional supervisor (ALPS) who has worked nearly 30 years to provide person-centered support, services and advocacy to individuals who live with autism spectrum disorders, their families and those who support them. He has supported individuals with ASD throughout their lifespan, as they moved to the community from state-supported institutions, searched for and obtained employment, entered into relationships, and transitioned into college. Dr. Ellison is the Executive Director of the West Virginia Autism Training Center, and a part-time professor at Marshall University.
Many colleges and universities require undergraduates to live on campus, especially during their freshman and sophomore years. “Residence life” (calling on-campus living environments “dorms” is considered a faux pas in higher education these days) requires students to live as a member of a small, interactive society. To be an effective and successful member of an on-campus living environment, students are expected to understand and conform to social norms within residence halls. Students are also expected to pull their own weight both socially and in regard to independent living in their dorms.
Students diagnosed with ASD are sometimes challenged in independent living skill development.
Many require additional supports to learn these skills, and in recognizing when to use them. Colleges are not prepared to teach these skills to this population. Less than 5% of public, four-year institutions report employing staff dedicated to teaching independent living skills to college students diagnosed with ASD.
A successful residence hall experience requires one to understand and conform to understood norms and few colleges have employees available to teach those skills. It becomes clear that students with ASD must begin learning and mastering necessary skills prior to their transition into college.
To master the skills necessary for a successful residence hall experience, one must know what is expected for dorm living.
Participation in scheduled floor and resident hall activities, including scheduled floor meetings
Understand and follow residence hall rules
Interact socially with other students on your floor
Communicate effectively with roommate(s), including working through conflict
Interact with residence hall faculty and staff
Utilize academic support resources made available in residence hall settings
Continuing our occasional theme of listening to the advice of college students who have “been there and done that,” please join me in listening to recommendations provided by four graduates of Marshall University. Bradley, Nathan, Stephen, and Brian, each 2013 graduates of the university, responded to questions about personal goals, their experience with support programs, what they liked about campus, etc. But it is the final question I’d like to focus on for this essay.
What advice would you give the freshman “you,” if you could talk with your younger self prior to entering college?
Bradley reports he would advise himself to become familiar with, and stay current with, academic material in classes. Bradley suggests that academic success hinges on staying current with classroom assignments and learning.
Nathan says he recognized early the need to take time necessary to adjust to living on-campus. He says if given the opportunity, he would tell his younger self to “keep doing what you are doing,” and take a slow and steady pace that will lead to an effective adjustment.
Stephen would advise his freshman self to procrastinate less, and “start working on a capstone sooner,” rather than wait until the end of his senior year.
Brian states he would encourage his younger self to self-reflect on his educational path, and ensure it connects well with future professional goals. Brian recommends this self-reflection especially because financial and other resources may be limited while in college.
At the end of the school year, many high school seniors will begin planning their final stage of transition into higher education. Students will send out an application to their “first choice college,” and then several to their “Plan B colleges.” Each will then wait anxiously to hear back from those schools about their admission. Many questions are considered by students when determining their college of first choice. Does the college have an established academic major the student wants to study? Does the campus size feel right? Is it safe? Do sufficient opportunities for social interaction exist?
Most students with ASD consider additional questions.
Many want to know if professors use the most effective strategies for teaching to their unique learning styles, and if the culture of the school truly accepts diversity. Do support services exist that help with social and independent living needs? And if so, do those services cost extra?
CollegeAutismSpectrum.com maintains a list of two-year, four-year, and on-line colleges that provide services specific to students living on the autism spectrum. (The link to that list of colleges is: http://www.collegeautismspectrum.com/collegeprograms.html) The list provides links to the websites of those college program, allowing students and their parents to explore each site in order to find answers to their questions.
I do not endorse the information contained on the webpage. In my review of the site I recognize information I know is outdated (the service fee for Marshall University’s program is no longer correct and the site does not list our university’s summer program, for example). I do, however, endorse the idea of students and their families using the list as a first-step in exploring colleges that might potentially meet their needs.
To prepare for the transition to college I suggest:
Eszter Kiss is a Provisionally Licensed Counselor employed by the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University. Kiss presented “Adding Color to Cognitive Behavior Therapy,” at the WV Counseling Association. The presentation centered on the use of art as a tool to facilitate communication of thoughts and behavior for individuals with ASD. Specifically, Kiss uses this technique to support college students diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder.
The autism community has long recognized that many living with ASD can better communicate their inner experience through writing or art. For several reasons, an oral expression of their cognitions or emotions can be extremely difficult for those on the spectrum.
College students diagnosed with ASD often need a process through which to express and receive abstract information. Kiss’ presentation highlighted one such process.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a theoretical mental health counseling process through which this tool was used. CBT should not be attempted by those without advanced training in counseling psychology, or by those without expertise in this specific approach. However, the use of art as a tool to communicate abstract thought and improve life skills can be used by parents and support staff outside a CBT process.
For example, consider the picture at the beginning of this post drawn by a student on the spectrum after Ms. Kiss asked him to provide a visual representation of “resilience.”
The picture of the knight successfully blocking the arrows being shot at him allows a support professional to discuss the following types of issues:
In a previous blog I wrote about the topic of readiness within higher education to support college students with Asperger’s Disorder. The series touched on the ability of colleges to provide effective academic, social, and independent living supports. The “Benchmarks of Effective Supports for College Students with Asperger’s Disorder,” a tool to assess readiness of a specific institution, was provided.
But how can individual ASD students know that they are ready for college?
We at Marshall University receive numerous applications for our college support program. In fact, each year we typically receive more applications than we have spots to fill. So early on we developed an in-house tool to help assess the personal readiness of each applicant.
While not a valid assessment tool, this “Applicant Evaluation” may be a good instrument to use to assess basic readiness. At the very least it can inform the dialogue around the topic. Click on the downloadable link below for the full assessment:
One of the most challenging aspects of supporting college students diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder is the need for follow-up with professors, college staff, and others. Follow-up is important to ensure deadlines are met and that assignments are turned in according to each syllabus. The fast pace of college, combined with the severe anxiety and executive dysfunction common to the spectrum, create the perfect conditions for students with ASD to forget deadlines or avoid high pressure academic or social situations on campus.
I’ve known dozens of students with ASD who promised: “I will work on my speech for Communications class this evening after dinner.” And they mean it sincerely when they say it. Stress and commitments mount as the day moves forward, however, and by dinner time students who made the promise may feel overwhelmed and overstimulated and avoid the assignment. Some may become focused so intensely on another subject or topic that they forget about working on their speech.
It’s easy to presume that students who miss deadlines or forget to turn in assignments are simply immature, disinterested, or unfocused.
Many educators say “If he would just try harder he’d be just fine.” Some students who fit this profile are labeled “not college material,” as a result, and find their on-campus reputations compromised. Part of the frustration that education and support personnel experience in this scenario comes from their lack of understanding about the autism spectrum. They recognize the sincerity of the student when he said: “I’ll work on my speech after dinner.” They believe the student really meant his promise, and expect that he will follow through.
Students across the country are making the trek back to campus within the next few weeks, as winter break comes to an end. As students pack their belongings and plan their travel back to college, each is thinking about the new semester: “What will the new professors be like?” “Can I handle the workload?” “What should I pack for campus, and what should I leave at home?” Several years ago, at the Penn State National Autism Conference, I met and befriended Caitlin Baran. Caitlin earned a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s degree in psychology from Shippensburg. Caitlin also was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 1997. Considering her extensive experience in the area of “transition to college,” I once asked her to provide some tips on the topic of returning to school after an extended break. Caitlin’s advice follows.
Advice From a College Student with Aspergers:
As an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome and a graduate of both graduate and undergraduate school, I thought it would be a wonderful idea to share tips on how to make the transition back to school a successful one.
My first tip deals with packing for school. It was always difficult to decide what to pack for school and what to leave behind at home. I found that packing was easier (a lot less stressful) when I made a list of what to pack.
When I packed something, I packed it with other like items. For example my cd’s and dvd’s together. That made it easier to know what I had packed not only during packing, but also when moving back to school. I would unpack all like items at once, placing them in the same location in my room. Also making a list helped me to check items off the list once I got and packed the item so I knew that particular item was taken care of.
Remember to start packing early. The items you don’t use on a daily basis should be packed before the items you use daily. Also it helps to designate a place in your house to collect the belongings you will be taking to school with you.
Another tip is to email the professors you will be having in the upcoming semester before the semester starts to ask what textbook will be used for the class.
This way if you need books on tape you can make sure to order it ahead of time and have the book on tape before the start of the semester. Even if you don’t use books on tape, emailing professors before the start of the semester is still a good idea. By knowing what textbook will be used for class ahead of time you can purchase the textbook on half.com and save money. In addition to saving money this also saves you from standing in lines in an overcrowded bookstore.
Several break-out sessions of the annual Autism Society conference in Indianapolis, Indiana were focused on the support of students with ASD in higher education. Dena Gassner (Adelphi University), Dr. Lorna Timmerman (Ball State University), and Jackie Clark and Rebecca Hansen (Marshall University) carried out a panel discussion on the topic, titled “Is College for Me.” Panel members discussed challenges related to success for students with ASD in higher education, and best-practice support strategies that can help overcome challenges.
Dr. Timmerman discussed at length the importance of self-determination in achieving success in college.
According to the presenter, self-determination “ranks as the #1 trait essential to college success for students making the transition to college.” The challenges, as Dr. Timmerman points out, is that “many students with ASD are weak in self-determination skills.”
In an article about self-determination from 1998, scholars describe self-determination as “a combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior. An understanding of one’s strengths and limitations together with a belief in oneself as capable and effective are essential to self-determination.”
According to Dr. Timmerman, four components of self-determination exist:
Dr. Timmerman suggests that to develop the self-determination skills necessary for college, high school students should:
Learn to become more independent, especially in regard to making their own decisions.
Understand how to regulate their behavior in difficult situations, deal with stressors, and plan ahead by setting and attaining goals.
Know their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and preferences; understand how autism affects their learning and day-to-day living.
Have confidence in their abilities to be successful and meet goals.
Each summer the West Virginia Autism Training Center, located at Marshall University, conducts a college experience for rising high school seniors interested in learning about the college lifestyle. Students take a typical class, live in dorms, participate in skills groups, and attend study halls.
And in between all that, they try to have some fun.
Significant to the experience is the building of “community” – in both the physical and social sense of the word – in which students can feel safe and connected to others. The college support program strives to create an experience where students can recognize and realize their potential. A large part of realizing one’s potential for higher education is feeling grounded and confident on campus.
What follows is a description of that high school summer experience written by a student who participated several years ago (he is now a successful upperclassman at a university). Lots of professionals talk about the importance of practical experience when teaching students with ASD; enjoy this first-person account from Charlie, as he describes how a summer experience transformed his views on attending college.
Dr. Julio Alves, of Marshall University, has worked extensively with college students diagnosed with ASD in his role as instructor of Classical Guitar Music Theory. Students who pursue a degree in Fine Arts face a significant hurdle in that they must pass both academic and rigorous performance evaluations to graduate.
A video interview with Dr. Alves can be seen below. The video isn’t professionally edited; in fact, the camera is a little shaky and the transitions between questions aren’t perfect.
Oh, but the content!
The insight and advice shared by Dr. Alves is worth sitting through twelve minutes of less-than-perfect editing. Some gems to watch out for:
At the 1:25 mark, Dr. Alves describes his initial anxiety upon learning that he would be providing instruction to one or more guitar majors diagnosed with ASD. He points out that his training to be a college professor did not include learning to teach students with ASD, and he felt both excited and afraid of the challenge.
At the 2:30 mark Dr. Alves states that he, as a teacher, may have learned more from the student (about himself, and his ability to teach) than the student learned from him.
At the 3:20 mark he explains the initial doubts he had about how well students with ASD could perform in college, and how that bias changed over time.
At the 4:35 mark Dr. Alves discusses the importance of relationship development with students. He provides a real-life anecdote that beautifully illustrates the importance of relationship building, and explains how professors must take the lead in building the relationship. The story also proves how well students with ASD can perform in the classroom when information is crafted to fit their learning styles.
At 9:27 Dr. Alves provides some basic tips to professors who teach college students living on the autism spectrum. He emphasizes the importance of creating a learning environment that feels comfortable and safe for students.