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.

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.

by Marc Ellison

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.

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.

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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 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.

by 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.

Skills for Aspergers Students for Residence Hall Success in College

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.

Brick Building on University Campus

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.

Expectations include:

  • 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

by Marc Ellison

College Students with Aspergers Give Their Experienced Advice: Part 3

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.

College Students

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.

You can watch the rest of this series here:

Part 1

Part 2

by Marc Ellison

Academic and Campus Accommodations for College with Aspergers

Autism and Higher Education

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.

University Of Tennessee Hill

A large body of literature describes the significant, life-long difficulties faced by many individuals diagnosed with ASD. The support needs for college students diagnosed with more traditional disabilities are well documented.

There is a lack of information, however, in regard to effectively supporting the college instruction of students with Asperger’s Disorder, and how to support their navigation of a campus society.

Ellison, Clark, Cunningham, and Hansen (2013) explored the phenomenon 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 categorized common themes identified by panel members. Their research was published in the peer-reviewed Southern Regional Council on Educational Administration Yearbook 2013.

The survey resulted in the creation of the Benchmarks of Effective Supports for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. That documents is available as a PDF file on this website (you can find it at the end of this article).

Research Conclusions on the Supports Needed Most for College Students with ASD:

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

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:

Is Higher Education Ready to Support Students with Asperger’s? Part 3

Independent Living

In 2013 I surveyed disability service professionals at 578 degree-granting, four-year public institutions of higher education. The survey was designed to determine the current readiness of higher education to support the academic, social and communication, and independent living needs of college students diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder.

230 colleges participated in the survey. The survey was designed around the Benchmarks of Effective Supports for College Students with Asperger’s Disorder , a checklist of efforts determined by experts as integral to effective college supports for this student population.

The 2013 study demonstrated college students with Asperger’s Disorder required specialized supports, and that disability services available traditionally on campus to this population were generally ineffective. It explored, in part, whether or not colleges had specialized supports for this student population outside of traditional disability services.

This article is the third in a three-part series that reports the outcomes of that research. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.