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
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.