Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

College Students Empower Middle/High School Students on the Autism Spectrum with a Foundation for Self-Expression and Social Skills

At the AHRC New York City Middle/High School in Brooklyn, New York, students on the autism spectrum are benefiting from a community engagement program called Catching a Dream at Pace University, as part of the outreach goals of the university.

The program consists of engaging the high school students on exciting projects with students of the university, in which they explore dreams, hopes, interests and life opportunities. Each fall and spring semester they are helped by largely liberal arts undergraduate students without disabilities on the projects. The middle/high school students are mentored by and one-on-one partnered with the undergraduate students in the semesters.

The program culminates in multimedia presentations of the dreams and interests of the high school students. The desired outcome of these projects is to increase the students’ potential for employment opportunity as a result of the increased pride and sociality they learn and develop during this process.

Exploratory Process in Relationships

The high school students are helped by the undergraduate students in an incremental learning process, in attempting to address deficits of the high school students. The process is an interactive one with storytelling projects, in which the high school students are attempting to clarify the following: what am I good at; what do I like about myself; what am I proud of; what are my strengths; and what would I like to do – interpreted if not prompted by the undergraduate students. The process is also one of personalized projects (e.g. gaming, history of the calculator, jobs for the future, history of monster racing, inquiry into the solar system) produced by the high school students and their teachers for follow-up by the undergraduate students; and they are helped by the undergraduate students in the process of researching any of the subjects through internet search systems and the Library system of the university.

The process is enhanced with mobile computing filming technology and innovative multimedia studio tools furnished by the high school staff or by the instructor and the undergraduate students – exciting and fun technology for self-expression needs of young adults and teenagers.

The process of storytelling is easy and fairly flexible. The undergraduate students are guided by the instructor in a program of storytelling through Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning and Creativity (Ohler, 2013). They are free, however, to pursue the process of the storytelling with the high school students at their own pace.

The merits of the program are evident in the positive response of the high school student teenagers to be in new and productive relationships with the undergraduate students who are similarly teenagers. The technique of storytelling has encouraged the high school students to engage more with their fellow students and their teachers as well as with the undergraduate students. They have had such a liking for multimedia storytelling that the technique is facilitating sociality. Their parents and their teachers indicate that the products of the projects – storytelling by the high school students themselves with mobile computing filming technologies – increase the conversational social skills of most of them. The intervention of the undergraduate students in this particular program is indicating that they have increased the potential of students with autism spectrum disorders to navigate the perceived rough social terrain of a high school setting (Bambara, 2014).

The projects are held in classrooms and computer laboratories for 3 hours each Tuesday and Friday for 14 weeks of a semester, even in the summer semester, at the university. Once completed, the storytelling projects are played and presented during the final week by the high school students, though they are helped by the undergraduate students. Those at the presentations include the parents of the students and the Middle/High School principal and staff.

The high school students are chosen for the program by the Middle/High School principal and staff with the consent of parents. The engagement in learning at a leading metropolitan university is a highly marketable proposition to the parents. The undergraduate students are in the program as a requirement of the university, and they are chosen and matched as mentors by the high school staff and the instructor based on the compatibility of similar interests of the high school and undergraduate students.

The projects highlight the hopes and interests of the high school students, including employment possibilities, not as individuals with disabilities, but as people with meaningful potential in society.

Students on the Spectrum Benefit From Improved Social Skills

As part of the projects, the high school students are mentored on what are essentially marketable skills, including self-advocacy, self-determination and self-discovery. Though the preparation of marketable skills is not the purpose of the projects, the students are inevitably mentored by the undergraduate students on easy-to-learn i-pad device technologies for helping them express themselves, which is providing positional skills with the potential for transition into possible jobs. The projects are nevertheless powerful in skills of sociality for societal transition.


“The projects are having a favorable impact on the lives of the students at the Middle / High School … they are enthusiastic about going into a university … they rave about the [undergraduate] students and the technologies.” – Christina Muccioli, Director of Education, AHRC New York City

“I like to learn not only how to tell my own story to others, but also how to learn the new technologies so that I can tell my story better to them … communicate more to them when I am on the street … and even get a job … all with the help of my mentor [at Pace University]” – AHRC New York City Middle / High School Student, Fall 2013

“The projects are leading us to meet new people in new relationships and to shape their lives through the projects … great learning … opened my eyes to them.” – Pace University Student, Spring 2014

“The projects increase involvement in public service to those with disabilities, increasing the liberal arts role in service to society” – James Lawler (Instructor), Pace University

In each of the semesters, there are an average of 24 high school students mentored on the projects by an average of 24 undergraduate students – a few of the high school students may be mentored by more than one undergraduate student; more than half of the high school students return in subsequent semesters.

The high school students may moreover be Skyped by the undergraduate students if they are not at the university on a Tuesday or a Friday.

Improving Quality of Life for Students on the Spectrum

From 2010 there have been close to 75 high school students on the autism spectrum partnered on the projects of storytelling with near to 125 undergraduate students. Most of the high school students never met or socialized with undergraduate students; and most of the undergraduate students never met teenagers or young adults with disabilities in social settings, until they joined this program. None of the students ever produced storytelling with technologies, until they produced the semester storytelling.

Overall, the Catching a Dream projects of the AHRC New York City Middle/High School and Pace University are providing a foundation for the high school students on the autism spectrum to gain outcomes of increased self-advocacy and sociality skills, and skills in state-of-the-art self-expression technologies, in order to be productive and to interact more in society; and the projects provide a foundation for the undergraduate students to fulfill outcomes of civic responsibility in gaining heightened sensitivity skills to this neglected population of society.

This program has been nationally recognized with the Jefferson Award Bronze Medal for Community Service, an award for projects that enhance the quality of life in the community.

For disability advocacy institutions considering pioneering in educational programs of inclusion for high school students and young adults on the autism spectrum, and empowering them with mobile computing iPad tools, they may contact Professor James Lawler at or Ms. Christina Muccioli at, for lessons learned from their Catching a Dream program at Pace University.

Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning and Creativity [Ohler, 2013] is a book that may be applied by disability advocacy institutions and is available at; and Professor Linda Bambara is researcher in interventions for transition-aged youth and adults with disabilities.


Bambara, L. (2014).  Peer intervention to improve the conversational skills of high school students with autism.  2014 Tash Conference, April 8.


Ohler, J.B. (2013).  Digital storytelling in the classroom.  2nd edition.  Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.


James Lawler, DPS, is Professor of Disability Studies and Information Technology at Pace University, and Christina Muccioli is Director of Education for AHRC New York City.

AHRC New York City is a chapter of NYSARC, Inc. and ARC, national organization for helping individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities; and Pace University is a leading institution of higher learning in New York City and Westchester County of New York State.

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