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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

College with autism: What helps

Kieran Barrett-Snyder, a star student in high school, flunked out of New York University, but succeeded at Rochester Institute of Technology, which has a special program for students with autism.

Students on the autism spectrum may do well in high school, but fail in college, writes Brendan Borrell on Spectrum. Some colleges now offer support for autistic students.

High school comes with a support system — family at home, therapists nearby, special-education classes — but colleges have traditionally embraced a sink-or-swim mentality. . . . Many students on the spectrum require support that extends beyond the classroom into their social and personal lives, such as reminders to do their laundry regularly or help finding study partners. They also have high rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, which can worsen in new situations. “Colleges are trying to cope with this expanding mental-health crisis,” says Fred Volkmar, professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology at Yale University. “They don’t quite know what to do.”

More than 60 support programs try to help college students, but they vary in services and costs, writes Borrell.

Rochester Institute of Technology’s Spectrum Support Program, which includes “assistance with the academic and social transition from high school to college, peer support and career development” has boosted success rates for students on the autism spectrum.

The program’s rationale is not to provide counseling or academic advice, (director Laurie) Ackles says, but to coach students on how to manage their time, navigate social situations, access services and advocate for themselves. The office has four full-time staff, including Ackles, plus about 20 graduate students and faculty to meet with students on the spectrum as often as twice a week. The team also helps the students find roommates and runs organized activities, including a pre-orientation program for new students, and social events on Friday nights. When trouble strikes, Ackles is often one of the first to hear about it. Students can contact her at any time — many do — and RIT has an early-alert system that notifies her office if a student is at risk of failing a class. . . . Last year, the university accepted 42 students with autism, bringing the total to 90.

That’s a lot of staff to support 90 students.

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