Findings recently published in the Harvard Review of Psychology reveal that there has been a significant upsurge of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder applying to and arriving on college campuses. Studying this particular increase is difficult, however, because “for every student receiving special services, there are 1-2 on that same campus who have not identified themselves to anyone,” says lead author of the review, Stephanie Pinder-Amaker. “We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of these students seeking to access higher education.”
As the statistics for autism seems to be on an upward trend—reported by the Center for Disease Control that 1 in 68 children are autistic—the need to create opportunities for those on the spectrum to thrive also increases. Many colleges and universities across the country are beginning to establish their own programs for people on the spectrum that include things like academic tutoring, anxiety reduction, and social skills workshops. Students are not forced to enroll in these programs, however, they are simply available if a student feels a need for them.
The Rochester Institute of technology requires its students to have real paid work experience before they can graduate and actually attracts about 20 to 30 students on the spectrum each year. Through their Spectrum Support Program, students are able to engage in a 15 week program of job interview seminars, resume help, networking, interview practice, and other necessary skills needed to feel confident when transitioning to the workforce. “Every program looks different, and families need to know how much time students will spend with the program staff. It’s equally important to know what a program is not going to do,” explains Lurie Ackles, director of the RIT program.
Mercyhurcy University in Erie, Pennsylvania actually offers special residential housing devoted to the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM). The program houses 25 students and grad student mentor where they have optional meetings for meals, support groups, off-campus outings, on campus activities, etc. One student reports that it was the first time she was able to suggest watching Disney movies on a Friday night without being laughed at.
It’s great that different schools are recognizing the importance of opening their doors to this growing population of autistic young adolescents. Giving them more options on campuses and the ability to choose one that matches their goals and needs the best. Jane Brown Theirfeld, E.D, co-Director of College Autism Spectrum, explains, “The reality is, students on the spectrum are going to be your next door neighbor, the person in the cubicle next to you and the parents of your kids’ friends. As long as you can understand the possibility of some social awkwardness, then people on the spectrum are equally as prepared and qualified.”