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Students with autism spectrum disorders transitioning to college

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice
January 11, 2016

Students with ASD are a growing subgroup of students with learning disabilities attending colleges and universities. According to Adreon and Durocher (2007), ASD describes a group of neurological disorders that influence the student’s social, communication, and behavior development. ASD is a measurement across a continuum that defines students as having high functioning autism (HFA), Asperger syndrome (AS), and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Each student may be affected differently by the disability and to various personal degrees.

While in high school, students with ASD are provided services specified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997/Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004. IDEA/IDEIA is a legal mandate that requires that secondary schools place students with ASD in exclusive classes, provide students accommodations specific to their disability, and monitor the student’s progress through a team of administrators, teachers and parents. When students transition to college, they move from the legal requirements of IDEA/IDEIA to services offered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Institutions of higher education that receive federal monies are required to adhere to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA of 1990 by providing students with ASD “reasonable accommodations” (Hadley & Satterfield, 2013; Zager & Alpern, 2010).

Roberts (2010) found that students with ASD must become effective self-advocates and able to request reasonable accommodations that will assist their efforts in the classroom. This may be of concern for students with ASD since communication may be one of their major challenges. Although postsecondary programs are more available to students with ASD, students still experience difficulties in the areas of academic coursework, managing their time and social interaction (Camarena & Sarigiani, 2009; McCaskill, 2009).

Western Michigan University’s Autism Services Center provides support for students with ASD in addition to those provided by the campus Disability Services for Students (DSS) office. Western Michigan University received funding by the state of Michigan specifically to provide support services for students with ASD.  The center provides support services that include helping students with time management and organizational skills, assisting them in locating on-campus tutoring for academic help, connecting them with registering for organizations for extracurricular clubs and arranging social events. One of only three programs in the state of Michigan, the Autism Services Center is staff by a multi-disciplinary team of Western Michigan University faculty: Dr. Alan Poling (Psychology Department), Dr. Jessica Frieder (Psychology Department), Dr. Wanda Hadley (Department of Educational Leadership Research and Technology) and Kourtney Bakalyar (doctoral student, Special Education and Literacy Studies). In addition to the services provided to students with ASD, the team conducts on-going research to inform the work done in the center.

About the author: Dr. Hadley is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Research and Technology (ELRT) at Western Michigan University. Her research interests focuses on the academic issues first-year students with learning disabilities experience in their transition to college through the lens of student development theory. She can be emailed at wanda.hadley@wmich.edu. Mark Addison is a Masters candidate in ELRT’s Higher Education Student Affairs concentration at Western Michigan University. He can be reached at mark.addison@wmich.edu.

References:

Adreon, D., & Durocher, J.S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School Clinic, 42(5), 271-279.

Camarena, P. M., & Sarigiani, P. A. (2009). Postsecondary educational aspirations of high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders and their parents. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 24, 115-128.

Hadley, W. M. & Satterfield, J. W. (2013). Are university students with learning disabilities getting the help they need? Journal of First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 25(1), 113-124.

McCaskill, S. (2009). What are the needs and challenges facing the autism community? Autism Spectrum News, 1(1), 30.

Roberts, K. D. (2010). Topic areas to consider when planning transition from high school to postsecondary education for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25(3), 158-162.

Zager, D. & Alpern, C. S. (2010). College-based inclusion programming for transition-age students with autism.