Supporting the Spectrum: Autism on Campus

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The number of college entrants self-identifying as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a group of complex neuro-developmental disorders, has risen dramatically in the past decade. This trend- prompted by increased diagnosis rates, early intervention, and ongoing support- has allowed for the successful integration of more and more students with ASD into mainstream education. At least, until they become adults. Now, more than ever, post-secondary institutions must be prepared to continue providing them with specialized support and avenues for engagement as they continue progressing to higher levels of education. Non-Academic Support: Although many colleges and universities are continuing to expand their accessibility services and offerings, they may not be equipped to effectively accommodate the wide variation of needs and exceptions of each student with ASD. This is largely because the greatest areas of challenge for many of these students are related to socialization, communication, and behaviour, rather than academics. Autism centers and programs are beginning to emerge on campuses throughout North America, providing participants with a safe space to develop everyday skills related to self-care and independent living, while also connecting with their peers and learning social etiquette through inclusive exercises, events and activities. Within these programs, the presence and involvement of trained professionals is understandably necessary in ensuring that students receive the personalized support they need, when they need it. Of course, the high cost of these programs unfortunately presents an obstacle for some hoping to enroll; however, the fact that they are coming to fruition is certainly a step in the right direction. Mentor Programs: Much like traditional academic accommodations, advising and counselling services are often unable to address challenges commonly, albeit uniquely, faced by students with autism. These might include difficulties with organization, scope of focus, and sensory-processing, among others. In response to gaps in support, numerous universities have launched mentorship programs where upper-year students assist students with ASD in the development of effective time-management strategies, study techniques, etc. Through these interactions, mentors may also gain insight into specific areas of stress or concern for their mentees, prompting earlier intervention from trained professionals. Campus Awareness & Attitudes: As autism rates continue to climb, so does public awareness and interest in the disorder and its many presentations. Autism-focused lectures and information sessions could prove to be informative and illuminating for students, staff, and faculty alike. While it’s important to recognize the challenges that students with ASD might face on campus, the key to helping them thrive lies in the recognition of their abilities and strengths as key components of their uniqueness. These strengths might include - but are certainly not limited to - above-average intelligence and keen attention to detail. It’s a matter of creating an environment for such strengths to be maximized, while minimizing possible obstacles and stress triggers. Just as specialized support and expertise prove superior to one-size-fits-all approaches to retention and success, a campus culture of acceptance, understanding, and flexibility is ideal to effectively “support the spectrum”.

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