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APSU to launch pilot program focused on improving experience for autistic college students

8/11/2015

As more attention is given to those diagnosed with autism, young people and their families are receiving the help they need. Social skills like communication, making friends and independence are developed as autistic children go through their formative years.

But what happens to those children when they become young adults? Autism does not end at a certain age, and many of those diagnosed have the same dreams of higher education as their peers.

“Earlier this year, we put out a call for people to join us in a focus group because we wanted to see what Austin Peay could do to better support students with autism,” APSU assistant professor Dr. Gina Grogan said. “We received input from so many different people, including professors, students with and without autism, APSU staff and even community members as we tried to see what the University needed.”

Grogan has worked in special education her entire career, and said the University heard that call and is taking a major step to help its autistic students.

The answer Grogan and her team devised came in the form of a pilot program designed to assist APSU students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Dubbed “Full Spectrum Learning (FSL),” the program seeks to provide comprehensive support for ASD students as they advance through the college experience.

Modeled after a successful program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, dubbed “MoSAIC,” FSL will offer a curriculum special to the needs of students with autism. Enrolled students will receive one-on-one tutoring, peer mentoring, life coaching and support from FSL staff as they deal with the challenges of college life.

One unique aspect of FSL is that students are at the heart of its operation. As a pilot program, students will be consulted at every step to find ways to tweak the curriculum and better fit their needs.

“We're making this program very student centered, so much so that students even came up with the name of FSL,” Grogan said. “We want students involved. We want them to tell us what’s effective, what’s not effective and what we need to do to improve the program.”

Grogan said her hope is that FSL can provide an opportunity for APSU students in need – many of which, she estimates, are currently coping with their issues in secret.

“APSU currently has 24 enrolled students who are registered with disability services as having ASD,” Grogan said. “But I’d say that, for every registered student, there are probably four more students who have not enrolled because of the stigma associated with the label (of being autistic.)”

A recent study of more than 2000 students with disabilities, and more than 600 ASD students, in the journal Pediatrics indicated more than 50 percent of autistic youth had no post-secondary education or employment two years following high school graduation.

Intelligence is often not the problem for many ASD students. Research shows college-aged ASD students face greater challenges than merely passing an exam, which is why programs like FSL are being developed.

“There’s a good percentage of students with autism that are intellectually average, or even beyond the average when compared to other students,” Grogan said. “The problems they have to deal with are more social and executive functioning issues.”

The goal, Grogan said, is to tackle those extracurricular issues and promote retention and completion of college degrees. Beyond that, FSL seeks to help those graduates transition into the professional world.

“Many (college students with autism) look like everyone else, but they just need some extra help,” Grogan said. “And that’s why special education exists — so that everyone can get the help they need to have a fair opportunity to succeed.”

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