TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When fall classes resume on The University of Alabama campus in August, 18 students are expected to participate in UA’s transition program for students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The program, launched at UA in 2006, is one of only a handful of such programs nationwide designed specifically for providing support for students with an ASD, which includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive development disorder, said Dr. Sarah Ryan, the program’s director.
“It’s a safety net for the students – to have someone for the students to check in with and for the students to get help from,” Ryan said.
As the number of children identified nationwide as having an ASD has trended upward for several years, it’s evident, Ryan said, that universities will see an increasing number of students who could potentially benefit from the program’s services.
The UA program, which began with one student and grew, over the last five years, to 12, pairs the students with a mentor – usually a graduate student in psychology — who has received training from UA’s autism experts. The mentor and student meet two to three times per week, Ryan said.
The meetings are individually tailored to the student’s precise needs, but the mentor might, for example, offer tips to the student on ways to break down a large, somewhat overwhelming assignment, into smaller, more manageable segments, Ryan said.
Mentors can also offer additional organizational tips, advice on how to be good self-advocates – helping students better understand how and when to ask for assistance from their professors or others on campus. Some of the students in the program may have never invited a friend to the movies or to dinner, and mentors can help the students navigate those social circles.
If a student has anxiety or depression — additional challenges faced by some people with an ASD — mentors are trained in how to spot those warning signs and can ensure the students receive the needed help.
Every other week, participants and mentors meet with Ryan and others in group settings. Some weeks they discuss coping skills. During others, they may discuss best ways of studying for finals, plan a group outing or play Trivial Pursuit.
“They beat us at it,” Ryan said.
Difficulties in social interaction – including knowing how to make friends – poor conversation skills and obsessive interests are characteristics of people with autism spectrum disorders. Individuals with an ASD have IQ scores ranging from mental retardation to giftedness.
Students in UA’s Autism Spectrum Disorders College Transition and Support Program, known as UA-ACTS, must first be admitted into the University on their own merits.
“It’s five to 10 hours of services a week — depending on the student,” Ryan said. Those hours can be increased, if needed, she said.
The services come with a cost. Enrolled students in the program pay $3,300 during both the fall and spring semesters and $2,000 if enrolled during the summer.
Although the UA program is still in its infancy, so far the success rate of its enrolled students is comparable to that of the typical UA student, Ryan said.
By this fall, the UA program is expected to enroll students from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, Tennessee, New York and Texas.
“We’ve got a great group at UA, and we’re really excited to see what they can do,” Ryan said. Employers often benefit, she said, from some of the typical traits and perspectives that someone with an ASD brings to their position.
“They can become model employees,” Ryan said, “and probably some of your best innovators.”
The support system can also prove comforting to parents, Ryan said. After investing years in therapies and other means to help prepare their children for independence, some parents can feel intimidated by seeing their children on the verge of potentially achieving it, she said.
“To suddenly no longer be involved is scary – both for the parents and the students,” Ryan said.
In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 88 children in the United States has been identified as having an ASD. Among 8-year-old children, 11.3 per 1,000 were identified as having an ASD, a 23 percent increase since the previous report in 2009, according to a CDC news release. Some of the increase is due to the way children are identified, diagnosed and served, although exactly how much is due to these factors is unknown, according to the release.
Ryan said the program is also beneficial to the student mentors.
“This is not a training experience they are going to get at most any other university,” she said.
The UA-ACTS program is operated through the University’s Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinic. The clinic, which provides psychology, speech language pathology and pediatric services for individuals with ASD across their lifespans, is part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences.