How To Get Students On The Autism Spectrum To Succeed In College

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Richard was one of the brightest kids in his high school class. His parents figured college was the next step, but that dream was nearly cut short in his first semester.

Miscommunication with a professor resulted in an argument over handing in a paper he wasn’t finished with. Richard stormed in and out of the classroom several times, trying to retrieve the paper. The incident left the professor feeling afraid, some students in the room shouting at Richard and college administrators unsure whether to bar him from classes.

Richard is on the autism spectrum. There are ways to manage intense reactions such as his, but — like most people — neither the professor nor the students in that class knew anything about them.

The increase in the number of young people diagnosed with autism in the last 14 years has been staggering — from one in 152 in 2002 to an estimated one in 68 today. Funding and focus for autism have remained centered on helping younger kids cope. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of children like Richard turn 18 every year. (Students in this story all asked to be identified by their first names only.) They are often as smart as or smarter than their peers, but they go to college in far fewer numbers. They are even less likely to go to college than people with most other disabilities

Only a few dozen colleges have programs specifically designed to support students with autism, a recent study found. Many of the programs that do exist cost thousands of dollars per semester, on top of tuition. But there are practical and inexpensive methods to help these hundreds of thousands of students navigate the social and academic landmines that stymie them. Failing to help likely consigns them, as adults, to low-wage jobs, dependence on public assistance or ongoing reliance on their parents — who may also be struggling and are unlikely to outlive them.

A pilot program on five campuses at the City University of New York, where the number of students who disclosed that they are on the spectrum has more than doubled since 2012, has shown promising results.

Most CUNY students are low-income, and almost 40 percent come from households with incomes below $20,000 a year. The pilot program was implemented at no cost to students, and, for the most part, students participating in it over the last four years have been more likely to stay enrolled, improve their academic performance (grades for 60 percent of the participants at Kingsborough Community College went up) and report increased satisfaction with their social experience.

Faculty who oversee the program, dubbed Project REACH, emphasize that because of the vast differences in the behaviors and abilities of people on the spectrum, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But the program is built around a combination that works: weekly workshops (which are open to all students with disabilities) and one-on-one peer mentorship seem to meet a lot of students’ needs.

Related: More people with autism are getting training for technology jobs

Nick, a sophomore majoring in psychology, was diagnosed as a little boy with autism and attention deficit disorder. When he was younger he struggled with overwhelming waves of emotion and frustration that sometimes led to screaming and fits of rage that were hard to control. He and his parents chose the College of Staten Island because they heard it was supportive of students on the spectrum.

Nick, 19, had an A average in high school and is now in the college’s honors program, where he currently has a 3.14 GPA. Sitting in the psychology department in a gray T-shirt and blue sweatpants, lightly tapping his foot, he says he still struggles sometimes.

“I know if I could just take a minute out of my day and plan, I’d be so much better. I genuinely get so frustrated with myself,” he said, looking down, his foot-tapping becoming more strenuous and his face contorting, as if he were suddenly awash in that frustration.

He put his head down on the table for a moment, and then looked up, focused on the present once again.

“REACH helped me, because it made me more confident,” he said. “It made me understand more what autism was, and that made me more relaxed and more able to participate in class.”

The group sessions, which simulate an actual class environment, not only teach relevant topics, but also help students work on behaviors that can be problematic in their regular classes, such as being disruptive or not speaking at all.

“You can talk at people all you want about social skills,” said Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, assistant professor of psychology and director of Project REACH at CSI, “but there has to be an element of doing it for people to learn it. … That’s why we have the group classes.”

The workshops vary depending upon student interest and what the faculty think is needed. Topics have included how to use a syllabus, job interviews and resume writing, as well as social skills. Classes have also discussed self-advocacy, including if, when and how to disclose a disability.

“Initially when I wrote the proposal, I thought we would mostly do social skills, but they weren’t interested,” said Stella Woodroffe, director of Access-Ability Services at Kingsborough Community College, laughing. “It sounded too much like therapy. They’d had enough of it. They wanted more college skills and social events.”