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.
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.
My name is Charlie and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. This past Spring I was finishing my junior year in high school in Virginia, and my parents thought Marshall University would be a good idea for me for college because of their Asperger’s program. So we went to visit the school during my Spring Break.
At first, I was extremely nervous when I visited Marshall in March because I have always wanted to be close to home. And I didn’t really want to do the summer program. But my parents thought it would be good for me and that I should try it. So my dad and I drove out eight hours from Virginia in July, and I didn’t know what to expect.
On the Sunday that I moved into my dorm, I was totally petrified because of all the things I had to do so that I could have a decent room. Two days later, after my father left, I realized “Oh my God! I’m on my own!” and when reality sunk in I was so afraid that I almost cried myself to sleep that night.
But the next day, when I went to the student skill group, I found out that some of the students in the program were actually entertaining – like J.B., who was a funny guy who makes swift comebacks and wisecracks. To me, J.B. was like a big brother figure and he helped make the summer more fun. I met a lot of other great students there, and we formed a Nerf Wars group, battling each other with foam darts and weapons on unoccupied floors of our dorm and out on the campus grounds. We also watched movies and funny YouTube videos in each other’s dorm rooms, and I met other people who liked manga and anime too.
The social aspect was my favorite part of the five weeks – and I’m not very social at home. But living in the dorm on my own forced me to get out and do things and make friends.
I took a college level class in Music Appreciation, and I really liked it. The professor made me listen to opera for the first time, and I found that I grew a taste for it (especially Mozart’s Don Giovanni).
After completing the music class, the professor said that I was his favorite student since I knew so much about the history of the time periods of the music that we listened to. I worked hard and got an A in the class – and I’m really proud of that, especially since I’m still in high school! It was an awesome experience to have some freedom too. While I was on campus, I didn’t shave at all for the whole summer program, so I now have a beard.
By the end of those five weeks, thanks to success, fun, and foam darts, I really thought that college was really a great place to be. It was ironic because when I first got there I was afraid that I would oversleep and not get to class on time. I was worried about what time to go to the dining hall, how to manage my bank account and my time.
Turned out that I was able to do all of those things on my own and I had Keshia, my awesome mentor, to fall back on. She was really great. She met with me every day, got me organized, and helped me study for tests and assignments. She even drove me to Wal-Mart so I could buy more foam for my Nerf arsenal! At first I was nervous when I arrived, since I had visited so many colleges and felt a bit anxious. I thought that college would be too overwhelming. But by the time I left, I had a great time and didn’t want to come home.
The summer between high school graduation and the first day of college classes can be both exciting and anxiety-producing. It can be for anyone, really, but it may be especially so for individuals diagnosed with ASD. Challenges with executive functioning and theory of mind may make aspects important to the transition– planning for it, for example, or knowing who to go to for necessary advice to help with the transition – a significant hurdle to overcome.
Having a practical experience on a college campus prior to the move-in day may be a good way to overcome some of the challenges associated with transition to college.
Marshall University first developed a college experience for high school students diagnosed with ASD in 2008. Each summer dozens of rising seniors (students who have completed their junior year of high school and are entering their senior year) spend five weeks on campus.
They take a course of their choosing for college credit, live in dorms, and eat meals in a college cafeteria. Students receive one-on-one mentoring from the staff of the West Virginia Autism Training Center, and attend skill-building groups during their stay.
General goals of the summer college experience include:
Hillary Adams and Jackie Clark presented “Bridging the Gap: Supporting Students with ASD as they Transition from College to the Workforce” at the 2014 Autism Society conference held in Indianapolis, Indiana. Representing the West Virginia Autism Training Center, Adams and Clark provided several tips and considerations for those who are about to graduate and those who support them.
Utilize campus resources related to employment, especially those services provided traditionally on college campuses through a Career Service office. Begin a relationship with that office early; don’t wait until the final year
Participate in mock interviews, especially if those interviews can be videotaped for critique and coaching
Search for employment opportunities that fit interest as well as skill
Become aware of accommodation needs, and learn the self-advocacy skills necessary to request them. Learn to be more interdependent, understanding who in a potential workplace could best help you when help is needed
Plan the transition early, and plan it with others who are invested in your future
One of the coolest tips provided by Adams and Clark was the use of a Telephone Interview Checklist. This script supports college graduates as they undergo a telephone interview with a potential employer.
Rights afforded by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) transfer from parents to their children when those children enter college or turn eighteen years old. As a result, parents are unable to provide the same levels of support and advocacy they provided when their child was in high school.
Because of FERPA, parents of college students are generally unable to:
talk to instructors
request information about grades
explain to instructors how their child experiences ASD
or provide information about accommodations that may be helpful to their child living on the spectrum.
While many faculty and staff fear the hovering of the stereotypical “helicopter parent,” college support staff who truly understand how best to serve students with ASD recognize the value that parents bring to a student’s community of support.
In general, parents of students with ASD have “been there and done that,” in regard to education. Many parents can provide advice about the most subtle of modifications that, when implemented, may help their child be successful in a college classroom. College support staff would be wise to consider how to effectively integrate parents into the support programs of college students with ASD.
Examples of how that can be accomplished without violating the rights of the student include:
Help student express the limits of, and exceptions to, the reciprocal exchange of information with parents.
Support staff at Marshall University recognize and appreciate the rights of adult students, and honor each request made to keep educational information private. However, prior to developing support strategies we discuss with each student the value of allowing a parent to participate in their support, and the importance of sharing information that will enhance that support.
Should the student allow some information to be shared and insist other information remain private, staff document that request and ensure all members of the team understand and adhere to the request.
Create formal events that promote community building with parents.
Each October, parents of college students supported by the WV Autism Training Center travel from across the country to attend Parents’ Weekend at Marshall University. The event typically occurs during Homecoming Weekend, promoting further the concepts of fellowship and friendship. Staff work carefully to ensure the 150 – plus participants feel part of a large, intimate community focused on the same goal.
Writing a requested accommodations letter to your professors
Whether or not a student should formally disclose an autism spectrum disorder to disability support staff at a college or university is a personal decision one should make after thoughtful consideration. It is my opinion, however, that students have the potential for a better college experience when they provide faculty with information that improves the ability of the instructor to communicate with the student and accommodate his or her academic and social needs.
We at Marshall University have found that providing professors with information and examples about preferred instruction styles can help facilitate a successful classroom experience.
Your school might have disability services in place that offer facilitation between professors and students to help fit their accommodations. Oftentimes these services take the form of a letter written to the instructor that explains the student’s necessary accommodations for the class, which the professor must adhere to.
Look to see if your campus offers such services, and set up an appointment with a disability services representative to discuss your options. If your school does not offer services such as these, you can create this letter yourself.
Here is one example of how a letter to your professors could look.
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: