Using Art to Facilitate Skill Building in College Students with Aspergers

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.

Resilience

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:

An Assessment of Personal Readiness for College with ASD

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:

For College Students with Aspergers: The Importance of Follow-Up With Your Professors

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.

Follow Up Professors in College

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.

College with Asperger’s: 7 Benchmarks for Effective Support on Campus

The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has risen significantly since first described in the 1940s. The Center for Disease Control estimates currently 1 in 68 children in the United States lives with an ASD diagnosis, and that 46% of those diagnosed have average to above average intelligence. A large body of literature describes the significant, life-long difficulties faced by many individuals diagnosed with ASD. The support needed for college students diagnosed with more traditional disabilities are well documented. However, information is lacking in regard to effectively supporting the college instruction of students with Asperger’s Disorder and how to support their navigation of a campus society.

College Students with Asperger’s: Academic and Campus Accommodations Necessary

Researchers explored the topic of providing effective supports to college students diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder. Investigators convened a panel of experts to provide input on the topic, and then used a Delphi surveying method to categorize common themes identified by panel members.

The survey resulted in the creation of the Benchmarks of Effective Supports for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. This tool is available as a PDF file for use in your own college assessment:

Attachment: Benchmarks of Effective Supports for College Students with ASD

Research conclusions included:

1. Social Challenges, Independent Living Skills, and Cognitive Organizational Skills were mentioned as a need more often by expert panelist than was Academic Challenges. This suggests panelists agree that students diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder are, generally, intellectually capable of performing in the classroom but struggle with the social and organizational aspects of the college lifestyle;

Tips for the Transition Back to College for ASD Students

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.

Best wishes for an excellent semester!

By Marc Ellison

Self-Determination in College Success with Aspergers

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.

Beautiful female graduate

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:

  1. behavioral autonomy
  2. self-regulation
  3. self-realization
  4. psychological empowerment

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.

by Marc Ellison

Building a Community for College Success with Aspergers: One Student’s Experience

An Asperger Student's Personal Experience

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.

Advice From a College Professor of Students on the Autism Spectrum

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.

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeWo0B5qolo

by Dr. Marc Ellison

Is a Diagnostic Label of Asperger’s a Stigma in College?

Students making the transition from high school to college often question the need to make public – either verbally or by providing a formal evaluation to disability service professionals in higher education – their diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder.

Student sitting reading a book and taking notes in lecture hall

The concern is one to consider; common sense suggests to us that public disclosure of an autism spectrum disorder may cause stigmatization.

But does it really?

It may be, certainly. Responses to the disclosure of an autism spectrum disorder likely vary from peer to peer, and institution to institution.

There is evidence, however, that diagnostic labels may create less stigma for adults with Asperger’s Disorder than do the social behaviors commonly associated with the syndrome.

Butler and Gillis (2011) report the findings of their research on this topic in a paper titled “The Impact of Labels and Behaviors on the Stigmatization of Adults with Asperger’s Disorder.”

The researchers surveyed 195 undergraduate psychology students at Auburn University by presenting them with vignettes that portray a wide spectrum of social behavior. Vignettes were paired either with the label “Asperger’s Disorder,” or with no label at all. Participants then completed a modified Social Distance Scale. This was a self-report questionnaire to express the level of stigma they attached to the individual described in each vignette.

Findings “support the hypothesis that it is the atypical behaviors associated with AD that influence stigmatizing attitudes towards individuals with AD, not the label of the disorder”.

In this study the label “Asperger’s Disorder” did not affect stigmatization to a significant level.

This research is clearly limited, and the researchers suggest several potential reasons for the outcome. The study suggests, however, that in order to address potential stigmatization it may be best to spend time and effort teaching appropriate social and independent living skills, rather than prioritizing disclosure as the highest concern.

This won’t be true for all. But it is a point to consider.

by Dr. Marc Ellison

Butler, R. C., & Gillis, J. M. (2011). The Impact of Labels and Behaviors on the Stigmatization of Adults with Asperger’s Disorder. Journal Of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 41(6), 741-749. doi:10.1007/s10803-010-1093-9

Advice From College Students with Aspergers: Part 2

The best advice one can receive about effective support for college students diagnosed with ASD comes from, of course, students themselves. Kristopher Kirk graduated from Marshall University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering (with an emphasis in Civil Engineering) in early December, 2014. At a university-sponsored Parent Weekend event, Kristopher – who has received supports from MU’s college support program during his four years at the school – provided these insights about his college experience.

Kristopher advises college students living on the spectrum: