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.

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.

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

Communicating Strengths and Needs in College

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.

Using Choice to Increase Academic Success

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.

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?

Using Art to Facilitate Skill Building in College Students with Aspergers

Eszter Kiss, a Provisionally Licensed Counselor employed by the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University, recently 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, Ms. 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. Ms. Kiss’ presentation highlighted one such process.

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:

Template to Support College Writing Assignments for Students with Aspergers

Many college students with Asperger’s need assistance with writing assignments. Whether it is for a writing intensive course or for an essay in a basic undergraduate class, the following often occurs:

Student doing the notes

  1. Students write too little. Students often presume professors will infer from their most basic of communications what the student intends and, as a result, leave out details.
    • These details, of course, are what professors want to read.
  1. Students write too much. Students are sometimes uncertain what professors want to read and end up throwing everything – including the kitchen sink – into the document. This especially happens when students are writing about a topic that has personal interest to them.
  1. Students with Asperger’s Disorder sometimes cannot predict what professors want to read in a writing assignment. This creates difficulties with emotional regulation, during which students may avoid the assignment or have an emotional meltdown.

Students can more easily complete writing assignments when provided clear instructions about the structure of an assignment and relevant examples. A template is often helpful. The following is such a template, used to help a student assigned with writing a paper for a History class.

Please note: The examples provided were not related to the assignment. They were merely examples.

Including Parents in the Community of Support for Aspergers Students in College

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. 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.

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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 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.

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.

Beautiful female graduate

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.