In that Asperger Syndrome (AS) was first included as a formal diagnosis in the DSM-IV in 1994, it seems likely that many of the children born after that date who were diagnosed with AS have received academic and social services throughout their school years. These services have enabled them to achieve a higher level of success than was likely before the diagnosis was understood, and individuals with AS were supported in mainstream education. Thus we are now seeing a large cohort of students with AS who are already enrolled, wish to enroll, or who are now preparing to transition to college.
For students with AS, and other nonverbal learning disabilities, the transition to the college experience can be especially anxiety provoking and isolating. Students with AS need different services and supports than students with other disabilities. How can colleges meet the unique and pervasive set of challenges and needs that these students present with? Designing a blueprint for an excellent college support program for students with AS is a complicated process.
One of the most important issues in building a support program for students with AS is understanding the necessity for an individualized approach that can meet the unique needs of each student in the program. Not only must the program offer a comprehensive array of services, it must also be sensitive and flexible enough to identify and respond to the individual and idiosyncratic needs, thoughts, and behaviors of all students in the program. Because individuals with AS have extremely variable developmental profiles, no two students will need the same combination of supports. Using a person-centered approach, and “meeting each student where they are,” allows for addressing the variations in individual needs. Some students may need extensive executive functioning and academic supports, while others may need more of a focus on socialization issues, and many others likely will need a bit of both. Creating this environment takes good planning, good training, and really good listening.
When building an AS support program, probably the single most important ingredient is working within a welcoming campus culture; which means having administration, faculty and staff support and acceptance for the program. It may be hard to believe, but there are colleges that do not want to be “identified” as being receptive to AS students. If the campus culture is accepting, then deciding what division of the college that the program will be housed in is another important issue. Where it is housed could affect the focus of services, how those services are provided, and who delivers them.
Proper staffing is critical, and like with any other successful project, it starts at the top. Priority should be placed on finding a director who is experienced in providing services, and has a well-developed approach for dealing with individuals on the spectrum and their families. The director must also be qualified to train, support and supervise all program staff members. Other staffing issues may include whether to use professionals, retirees, or graduate students as staff. The staffing question takes on greater importance when it understood that in order for the program to be successful, it is essential for the students in the program to develop trusting relationships with the staff. Like other similar professional relationships, trust in, and belief that, the professional can help, are strong indicators for positive outcomes.
In relation to building trust with the students, creating a safe environment for them is important as well. Office space availability can often be a problem on college campuses, so that finding a space that can be used for the safe, quiet delivery of services can be a challenge. Ideally, the space will have multiple individual offices so that services can be delivered privately; and a larger common area for formal and informal socialization opportunities. Creating a space that feels safe and welcoming to the students is important both academically and socially.
Regarding services that are provided, I feel that it is important to place equal focus on academic, social and vocational support issues. Clearly defining these parameters to staff, students and families before they enter the program sets the framework for everyone involved. Staff will know where they are expected to focus, and students and their families will know what to expect from the program. In addition, having different staff members with different skills sets responsible to provide service in each area is advised.
A few more words on trust and safety. Client trust is built on their belief and feelings of being understood and valued. Because our population has struggled with these issues so often in the past, it is essential to address them directly. I train staff to try to “see the world through the eyes” of each student that they work with, and to let the student know that they are trying to do that. As well, I encourage staff to “listen to the music, not the words.” That is, to try to understand what message each student is trying to tell us. For many students, this is the first time that anyone has communicated these wishes to them, and they find it exciting and hopeful. By taking this approach, I am attempting to begin to challenge the negative thinking style that individuals with AS often manifest, which includes the belief that others cannot, or will not, understand them. These beliefs often stand in the way of students disclosing problems and challenges to staff members, and therefore, getting the help that they need.
Because of its importance to student success, and its multiple challenges, I suggest dividing academics into separate service providers; whom I will refer to as the Academic Coach and the Learning Strategist. Both will focus on the cognitive disabilities that often cause students with AS to struggle academically. Because of transition and anxiety issues that are common at the beginning of each semester, placing increased focus on academics at that time is advised.
The Academic Coach is trained in, and responsible to, monitor executive functioning issues and to take the global view of student status. Academic Coaches not only monitor class syllabi, time management, and organization and planning; they also monitor self-management issues such as sleep and waking management, personal hygiene, and medication management. By working with the same students over the course of their enrollment in the program, the Academic Coach learns areas of strength and weakness, and the unique issues that need attention for each student, which enables trust to build and be maintained. We have been most successful when these meetings occur at least twice weekly. Students leave each meeting with their Academic Coach with a printed document of assignments, exam preparations, or other scheduled support sessions that should be completed before the next meeting with the Academic Coach. As another form of communication and documentation of the upcoming tasks, the Academic Coach emails this information to the students.
The Learning Strategist is trained in, and responsible for, working with students to address typically occurring academic problems including procrastination and avoidance. The Learning Strategist focuses on helping students understand and complete assignments, develop, produce and convert thoughts to cohesive text or narratives, and prepare for exams. As with the Academic Coach, the Learning Strategist works individually with the same students so that they can come to understand each student’s areas of strength and weakness, and become aware of the unique issues that need attention for each student, which also enables trust to build and be maintained. These meetings occur at least twice weekly. If the student needs more specific specialized tutoring help, a referral is made to the university Tutoring Center.
As difficulties with socialization are at the core of AS, there has been a focused approach to address social issues as advised. We have utilized a multimodal approach, which includes Peer Mentoring, social support groups, and group outings. Peer Mentors can be student volunteers from the university that are trained and supervised to provide weekly socialization opportunities for students in the program. Based in Social Learning Theory, the primary role of the Peer Mentor is to model appropriate social behaviors. These may include behaviors as simple as answering emails or voice mails, to being on time for appointments, or encouraging their student to participate in other campus activities which the Peer Mentor may be involved in.
Social groups and group outings provide opportunities for students to socialize and get to know each other in small and large settings, on and off campus. Weekly or bi-weekly open groups, run by members of the program’s staff, encourage friendships within the program, and offer students the opportunity to safely discuss problems that they may be having in school, at home, or with peers. Planning group activities, both on and off campus, can also be a goal of these meetings. In both cases, students have the opportunity to practice brainstorming and problem solving techniques. One caveat on organized social activities: in my experience I have found that for college students, any benefits that they may receive from manualized socialization trainings have been negated by feelings of humiliation at being presented information in ways that remind them of previous trainings received when they were younger. College students often benefit most when they are presented information in more indirect, and mature settings and styles.
One reason that vocational services are included in the program design is that it is all too common to see students successfully complete their college careers, only to move back home to live with their parents, ill-equipped to become employed. Additionally, having a vocational goal can help to motivate and shape academic efforts. Therefore, having an experienced vocational counselor on staff is an important element. This person can offer vocational testing and interpretation for the students, as well as develop on and off campus job opportunities, provide job coaching, and resume writing and job interview skills support. These services can be provided individually and in group settings.
Efforts to create and maintain college support programs for students with AS are hard work, but they are important and can be successful. Because individuals with AS see the world differently, their creativity and thinking styles can be an asset on any campus. As more students with AS become successful in college because of support programs, and their positive contributions to campus communities become recognized, we should see programs offered on more campuses.
Mitch Nagler MA, LMHC is the Director of the Bridges to Adelphi Program at Adelphi University, in Garden City, NY, which provides support services to Adelphi students diagnosed with AS or other similar non-verbal learning disorders. Mitch also maintains a private practice at Spectrum Services in NYC, and in an office in Merrick, NY where he specializes in treating young adults diagnosed with AS. Mitch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.