A. Sue Weisler, Rochester Institute of Technology
About a decade ago, an influx of students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder surprised officials at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Disability Services Office. The students had questions beyond the usual accommodations. They wanted to know how to deal with a snippy roommate or professor, or they just had problems communicating.
The presence of so many students with autism was unremarkable for RIT. The university is home to the well-known National Technical Institute for the Deaf, so the college was already used to teaching in different styles for students with disabilities. And students with autism are often attracted to computing and other STEM-centric programs -- RIT’s specialty.
Officials have registered 200 students with autism with disability services in the last academic year. Because students are not obligated to report their disabilities, those with autism are likely underrepresented in that figure. RIT’s total population is a little more than 19,000 students.
The institution wanted to do more for students on the spectrum, and with a two-year, $200,000 National Science Foundation grant, officials in 2008 launched a program designed specifically for them -- one that would provide students with autism with weekly coaching on all facets of college life.
Ten years later, the Spectrum Support Program has become a cornerstone at RIT, an initiative that grew organically and rapidly simply through word of mouth, said Laurie Ackles, the program’s director.
“The autism community is a pretty tight community,” Ackles said.
The pilot program -- few of which existed in the country at the time -- started out just serving a group of first-year students, who were paired with a graduate psychology student as a “coach.” When the NSF grant came in, administrators extended the services to all students with autism who were STEM majors and later covered the costs for all students on the spectrum.
It's not surprising RIT is attracting students with autism, said Brad Cox, an associate professor of higher education at Florida State University and the founder of the College Autism Network, a nonprofit attempting to build services for autistic students at colleges and universities. The group will hold its College Inclusion Summit in October to help teach professors and administrators how they can work with students with autism.
The university's program has been built up so much since its launch, Cox said.
"It's pretty expensive to start one of these, meaning that a program that has been around for a little while and has some expertise to back it up, that program will draw more and more people," Cox said.
RIT's program has ballooned to about 86 students this academic year, from its original iteration of just 10 to 12 students. No longer does the disability services office refer students to the program -- it’s reversed, with many of the students with autism finding out about the Spectrum Support Program before anything else.
It also now includes a career-readiness component and has been replicated by other institutions. RIT, based on the program, created a guide, “Emerging Practices for Supporting Students on the Autism Spectrum in Higher Education,” for other institutions on starting such projects.
Ackles estimates about 50 such programs now exist at other colleges (though not necessarily always inspired by RIT’s). Other prominent projects include those at Western Kentucky University and Marshall University, Cox said.
The bulk of the program at RIT is the coaching that students receive. Either weekly, twice weekly or twice monthly, the recipients meet with an adviser -- either a graduate student or a staff member with the program -- to discuss academics and wellness, such as whether they’re sleeping or eating healthfully. Since the original grant expired, half of the program’s nearly $400,000 budget comes out of the university’s coffers, and the other half is paid for with enrollment fees the university charges the students who participate. Freshmen are charged $3,000 to $4,000 a year depending on how often they’re meeting with their coaches, and upperclassmen are charged $2,200 or $3,000 annually.
Donald Griner just finished his first year at RIT. An upstate New York native, Griner said he was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (later renamed autism spectrum disorder). This means he's on the spectrum, but his diagnosis is not as specific as someone with, for instance, Asperger’s syndrome. Griner said he has trouble with some logic problems and high-level math that might take him longer than it would for other students.
However, he wanted to focus on computer programing, which RIT is well known for, when he entered college.
Griner and his family discovered RIT's autism program while they researched colleges for him.
His diagnosis allows him to receive extended time for testing, which he said he needed, but the most helpful piece of the program was the coaching. During his first semester, when his grades were dipping in his introductory computer science class, the coach encouraged Griner to stay motivated and enrolled in the class until he was sure he couldn't handle it. Then, the coach helped connect him to a new major -- business management -- when Griner later determined he didn't enjoy programming.
The coach connected him with career services at RIT, too, Griner said. His first-semester grade point average, which he said was quite poor, improved the next semester to a 3.5 with his help.
And the program gave its participants an extra week on campus before first-year orientation, so he was able to make friends and connect with others early.
"The college most definitely provided more," Griner said. "I love my high school to bits, but it's in a small town, and the college is much bigger and has much more power to put these programs into practice."
Spectrum Support has been quite popular, and current students and their families or alumni often donate to it. One worker with the program even donates a small portion of every paycheck back to it.
While colleges that host such programs have gotten significant positive feedback anecdotally, academic studies have not definitively proven that they help students with autism, Cox said -- this is the next step for researchers.
Cox said tensions have also arisen with the fees that students and their families are charged to pay for the programs. Adding several thousand dollars more a semester to tuition can exclude certain autistic students who may not have the finances, he said. At some point, too, the programs will become too expensive to manage, and institutions will be forced to cap the number of students who can take advantage of them, Cox said.
The largest gift to the RIT autism program, $960,000, parsed out over five years, is helping fund the Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative, which helps teach the students some of the soft skills employers find desirable -- like scheduling and flexibility and communication. Students also do mock interviews. The Spectrum Support staff works with RIT’s Office of Career Services and Cooperative Education. The two offices have also taught potential employers about the needs of workers with autism.
“It’s just an example of how we serve outside the RIT population, as a resource for anyone, especially employers that want to learn more,” said Janine Rowe, assistant director for careers and disabilities.
Interviewing lessons are particularly important for RIT students, as about 80 percent of the college’s majors require participation in a co-op experience -- a paid work experience in their chosen field of study.
RIT determined that about 66 percent of students with autism were on track and completed the co-op requirement compared to their peers. After the careers part of the program was introduced two years ago, that rose to 75 percent, Rowe said.
The most recent development in the program is a Career Ready Boot Camp -- about 10 students will live on campus for three weeks this summer and work in teams from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day to build 3-D printers. The participants will need to present their 3-D printers to students with RIT’s K-12 Academy, which is runs summer camps for elementary, middle and high school students.
“It’s integrating some social stuff, but really about building the soft skills these students need,” Ackles said.
One student participant in last year’s camp, Alaina Russell, told RIT that the three weeks helped build her self-confidence.
“I wanted to expand my knowledge and improve on my teamwork skills and working together,” Russell said in an interview with the college.