In the last twenty years the growing awareness of autism, the reconceptualization of autism as a spectrum of characteristics, and improved diagnostic techniques have contributed to the increased demand for specialized educational programs in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary educational institutions. Many young adults have benefited from the development of the improved treatments and instructional strategies and are now enrolling in colleges in greater numbers each year. It is estimated that as many as 1 to 2% of college students may have an autism spectrum disorder (White et al., 2011). In a 2008 article, VanBergeijk, Klin, and Volkmar addressed the “surge” of ASD children approaching college age with specific recommendations for transition and support services. Universities were encouraged to “learn how to effectively intervene in the areas of communication, social and independent living skills, and executive functioning.” They concluded that college supports must be expanded “to include social skills groups, psycho-educational groups, directive counseling, vocational training and life coaching” (VanBergeijk et al., 2008).
The OASIS (Ongoing Academic Social Instructional Support) Program, a fully inclusive college support program for Pace University students with ASD or other learning differences, realizes this model. Our students are matriculated in a Bachelor’s degree program and many live in campus housing. Students receive the following support services: individualized advisement and supervision for course selection, academic support such as tutoring, assistance with time management and organizational skills, campus life support, career development and internships, social/emotional support through specialized counseling, communication groups, dating/relationship groups, and social literacy classes. While accommodations in courses are provided, the work is not modified and remains at the college level. An academic coach meets with each student a minimum of four times weekly to assist and support them with assignments, organization, and management of their studies. The academic coach meets with faculty as needed to ensure communication among OASIS students, staff, and university professors. While the OASIS program provides intensive academic support, other areas of support are seen as critical to the student having a successful college experience. OASIS students receive support for social, emotional, and vocational development as essential components of college life. Students are encouraged to participate in weekly psychodynamic groups which address issues of transition to college, independent functioning and identity. Topical didactic groups are also offered in sexuality, dating and relationships, mindfulness and emotional regulation.
Even with this comprehensive level of support, a four-year Liberal Arts degree is very challenging for certain students. College life is rewarding because it provides a variety of new experiences for students. However, these experiences also create social demands and difficult situations. Many ASD students are surprised to learn that they must take core curriculum courses outside their special areas of interest. They are often resistant to these requirements. Many are seeking a specialized field of interest such as film-making or computer systems design and may not appreciate the variety of courses one is exposed to in a comprehensive liberal arts education. Neuropsychological profiles of these students often indicate specific weaknesses in areas such as languages or math, which suggests the more comprehensive curriculum may not be the best option. Other opportunities may be available for these students in technology institutes, art schools or other professional training and certification programs.
A promising solution for helping non-academically inclined individuals involves an approach that assesses and addresses needs in the areas of vocational, educational and interpersonal skills as they relate to potential success in the world of work. All of these aspects of an individual’s development are closely interrelated; however it unfortunately seems there are few programs out there that successfully address all of these components in a cohesive way.
Vocational Goals and Educational Needs Assessment
When a client comes to seek guidance from an organization such as Jewish Child Care Association’s Compass Project, either independently via referral from NY State Adult Career and Continuing Educational Services (ACCES-VR) or as students through partnership with the OASIS program at Pace University, we first evaluate the most important factor that will help determine potential for success: do they want our help? If a young person has not reached the emotional maturity to understand why help and guidance would be beneficial, then it is not the right time to pursue support services.
Once a client is ready to receive help, we allow the space to fully explore dreams and goals. This not only helps build a trusting relationship, but it also helps a client to become excited about the prospect of deciding on a career, rather than focusing only on feelings of doubt or anxiety. Sometimes the goals a client brings to the table are realistic and attainable with their current level of education and experience, but often times a person will come to the program with potentially unrealistic goals and without a real understanding of what it might take to actually pursue a career in a given field. In either case, we work with individuals on a one-on-one, individualized basis to guide them on the process of self-discovery and career exploration.
Activities included in the process of self and career exploration are all geared towards helping an individual come to a conclusion about how realistic and attainable a certain set of goals are. Activities to accomplish this task will often include career interest and aptitude assessments, discussions about values with relationship to work, basic educational assessments to determine the viability of pursuing some form of higher education, measures of executive functioning difficulty to identify areas of needed support, and practice in the art of conversation so individuals may begin to connect with professionals in their fields of interest. All of these activities help a client to develop valuable insight while also working towards a clear goal.
Once an individual has identified a direction they would like to go, there are varieties of different educational directions that will help a client move towards attaining short and long term goals. Many people get stuck on the idea that college is the only answer, even without having a clear idea of why attending college is a good idea or what the potential degree (including time and money invested) will help achieve. With this idea in mind, it has become clear that for people on the spectrum, education can come in many forms. An associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree are two obvious forms, but certificate programs, trade schools, vocational schools, apprenticeships, internships, part-time jobs and volunteer opportunities are also meaningful and valuable experiences that can move an individual towards a desirable direction. All of these experiences, if done in the pursuit of a clear goal, have the potential to enhance a person’s skills and increase their competitive advantage in the marketplace.
A Strengths-Based Orientation and Supportive Learning Environments
It is a well-known fact that a disproportionate number of people on the autism spectrum are either unemployed or underemployed. Some may argue that this is due to the fact that a person’s challenges or disabilities are getting in the way of their success. We would argue that these individuals have not had appropriate support in identifying their areas of greatest potential, nor have they had appropriate support in getting connected to a variety of educational opportunities in supportive environments that will aid in their long-term success.
The supportive environment component, be it an educational or work situation, is the elephant in the room that is often the toughest component to tackle. Despite this notion and because of the thoughtful efforts of people who invest a little extra time and energy towards individuals on the spectrum, school systems and employers have begun to see that people on the spectrum can have a place and be a valuable asset to an organization. Finding a unique place for individuals is the component that we all must strive to continue to promote, because everyone does have a place, but it may just take some time and a little bit of extra effort to help each individual find it.
Overall we seek to strike a balance between a strengths-based perspective of helping with the more traditional medical model of identifying deficits that an individual has. It is important to note that our focus is leaning more towards the strengths-based view because that is ultimately the driver towards helping an individual find a place within the world of work. It would be delusional to think we could “fix” all of an individual’s problems, however we can help people to develop coping strategies and advocacy skills to deal with the things that may be challenge throughout life.
Importance of Research-Based Outcomes
Having observed methods that appear to have impact on successful vocational and educational development, we have also begun to work towards developing empirically-based programmatic research to help measure the effectiveness of these methods. Two tools we have begun to consider utilizing to measure changes over time are the Clinical Global Impression (CGI) Scale and the behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functioning (BRIEF). For starters, our aim is to measure specific components with relation to social competency and its impact on transition. The specifics of our research are still in development, but we understand the need to do measured evaluation if we are to effectively evaluate interventions and eventually replicate outcomes.
Mary Riggs Cohen, PhD, is Director of the Center for Teaching and Research in Autism/OASIS Program at Pace University. For more information please contact Dr. Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.pace.edu/school-of-education/centers/center-for-teaching-and-research-in-autism-1/the-oasis-program-formerly-the-boss-program.
Evan Oppenheimer, LMHC, is Coordinator and Licensed Mental Health Counselor at the Jewish Child Care Association’s Compass Project. For more information, please visit www.jccany.org/compass.
VanBergeijk, E., Klin, A. & Volkmar, F. (2008). Supporting more able students on the autism spectrum: college and beyond. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders,38, 1359-1370. doi:10. 1007/s10803-007-0524-8
White, S.W., Ollendick, T.H. & Bray, B.C. (2011) College students on the autism spectrum: Prevalence and associated problems. Autism. Advance online publication. doi: 117711362361310393363