April 2016 – Autism Awareness Month

April – in Honor of Autism Awareness Month

When I was hired at Wright State University’s Office of Disability Services (ODS) , I had no idea what our office would be doing for students on the autism spectrum in just over three years’ time. As an alumna of Wright State, I knew that the university was nationally recognized for its services for students with disabilities. I had only heard snippets during my first few weeks about a fledgling program in our department that offered transition support program for students on the spectrum. In fact, when I came on board in November 2012, the program was still in its first months of infancy. I was privileged to see the first cohort of RASE students wrapping up the pilot semester when I arrived. Even after just 16 weeks, staff members were remarking on how the transition coach program was already making a difference for our students. Later dubbed Raiders on the Autism Spectrum Excelling (or RASE), this homegrown coaching program had filled a critical niche on campus.

In just eight years’ time, the population of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who are registered with the ODS has grown from approximately 30 students in 2006 to over 100 students in 2015. With this steady increase in enrollment of students on the spectrum, more requests have come each semester for guidance from other campus units. Our office responds to calls regularly from student conduct, residence services staff, the campus police, academic advisors, panicked professors, and a variety of other sources. However, by 2012, the staff began to notice that more and more calls involved students on the spectrum, including requests for guidance on how to have a successful interaction with a student on the spectrum who was not complying to the campus policies, classroom etiquette, social mores, etc. The increase in concern calls, paired with our staff’s personal experiences with students on their caseload, exemplified a growing need that had to be addressed.

I found out more about the impetus for RASE: student conduct concerns. There is a wide gamut of “understanding” and attitudes about the autism population, and it can present a vast array of misunderstandings in one day. Many of the students’ difficulties fell into one of these categories: social skills on campus (especially in campus housing), academic etiquette, adaptation to a new unstructured environment, executive functioning without an established support system, and stress management. Up until 2012, support to these students was provided by the case manager at ODS, along with referrals to the Student Academic Success Center and Counseling and Wellness services for tutoring, study coaching, and psychological support services. In many cases, this well intentioned combination was not quite hitting the mark for students on the spectrum. There was still a disconnect between the student and the abundant resources available to facilitate their success.

In response to the steady swell in enrollment of students on the spectrum, and a proportional increase in specific behavioral incidents, ODS considered it essential to promptly address this expanding population’s needs. The question was, “What would this type of support look like?” ODS staff member Heather Rando was tasked with figuring out the formula. After carefully assessing the population’s needs and reviewing her personal case management experience with students on the spectrum, Rando decided that a structured, peer-based coaching program would be the best course of action.  Rather than continue to provide piecemeal, reactive support (however well-intentioned) to students on the spectrum as they encounter struggles and obstacles, the coaching program was designed to establish a proactive support system to meet students at their point of entry, assist in transition to an independent life as a college student, and help them maintain the right trajectory for a successful transition to a career.

The central function of the RASE coach is to model the behaviors and traits of a successful college student: the five key competencies. These key competencies were developed to address the typical executive functioning difficulties, social struggles, and the heightened levels of stress (from coping with common college pitfalls as well as disability related issues) we were seeing in our population. Upon investigation into individual cases, ODS found that WSU students on the spectrum were not necessarily struggling with the curriculum of their chosen major. On average, the population has extremely high IQs, standardized test scores, and GPAs. However, students were not showing proportional retention rates for students of that quality of academic performance. Adept academically, students on the spectrum generally have little difficulty meeting the academic requirements. They often lack the social and problem-solving skills to navigate the college landscape.  There seemed to be a missing piece for these students.

Among incoming students on the spectrum, the soft skills necessary for success in college may be in various stages of development (depending on the level of engagement that was fostered by their support teams throughout their K-12 education). At the high school level, intervention specialists and teachers were “at the ready” to adapt the learning environment and curriculum, to deescalate frustrations, and to avoid known triggers. Unless families and school staff make conscious efforts to gain the student’s buy-in for the plan throughout the IEP process, there is generally a disconnect between the student and the actual management of their accommodations. By the time the students on the spectrum enter college, their habitual disengagement or inadvertent ignorance can be problematic in their development of the skills needed to acclimate to the nebulous college environment. The university system assumes and expects a higher level of self-advocacy from students, rather than allowing them to rely on the institution’s disability support framework to organize the accommodations.

The post-secondary accommodation process also represents what should be an empowering shift in the expectations from the student, but is often overwhelming to the unprepared. The new first year students are now expected to actively pursue support services and resources of which they may be unaware of the purpose or availability. Once the student formally registers for accommodations, they are expected to maintain contact with their support system (ODS staff, friends, family, STTAC coach, faculty, campus services staff). Accommodations are intended to “level the playing field” in the higher education model, not ensure success for the individual. There is not an established reporting structure or formal line of communication between the faculty, staff, and family to keep students on track. The students are expected to be able to articulate if and when they need assistance getting back on their desired tracks. This can be a lot to ask.

Students with ASD often find themselves overwhelmed by expectations and options, and feel disoriented and uncertain when they arrive on campus. This population functions comfortably when rules and expectations are clearly stated and enforced. If proper procedures, resources, and strategies are not clearly identified in a way that is significant to a person with ASD, the students may not figure out on their own which resources they need to seek out. Allowed to pass unchecked for too long, this faltering may cause the student to become frustrated with the college experience, become overly reliant on family and other support people, isolate themselves, etc. People with ASD often express affinity for structured interactions, instructional guidance, well defined rules, etc. The (seeming) absence of context, purpose, and structure can (understandably) induce anxiety in people with ASD.

Rando concluded that the over-arching issue was a lack of transition support for students while they navigate the labyrinthine of college, which requires cultivation of a variety of “soft skills,” like adaptability and resiliency. Someone needed to connect the dots between the students and their vital resources.

You can read about the specifics of the RASE program at our office’s website [http://www.wright.edu/disability-services/services], but the basic concept of RASE is to provide a one-on-one coaching from an experienced peer coach for each student on the spectrum. During the student’s first year, the coach works with them on five key transitional areas (as well as basic college survival skills):

  • Time management & organization
  • Use of technology
  • Social skills development
  • Self-advocacy
  • Resiliency

From its inception, RASE has focused its energies on developing independence and constructing support systems, organizational strategies, time management techniques, stress management plans, and more. RASE coaches are recruited from all majors, age groups, backgrounds, and walks of life; the one thing that all successful coaches have in common is their ability to translate and model their strengths (read: the 5 key competencies) in a way that bridges the gap between their students’ current skill set and the desired RASE goals. As skills are integrated into their students’ skill set and incremental victories are tallied, coaches are trained to take a step back, ask more of the student, and encourage the student to continually stretch their comfort zones.

Maintaining a program like RASE is amazing on the student side, but the efforts have to come from every angle, and, like coaching, the trajectory must be periodically reassessed and readjusted. Parents must be educated about the process of withdrawing their instinctual impulses to jump in and help when their students hit a bump in the road. As one parent revealed, “[The coach] and ODS have given [the student] the foundation for success, and at some point it has to be up to [the student] to determine how far he is willing to push himself to succeed.”

Outreach to the campus community is just as important as work with the students and their families. The students on the spectrum MUST feel safe and welcomed on campus. Our staff works with the WSU police department to increase the officers’ understanding of the autism population at Wright State, gives presentations for new faculty suggesting strategies for working with students on the spectrum in the classroom, and has meetings with Residence Life & Housing about the influx in requests for single rooms and roommate mediations.

A complementary program for students on the spectrum was dovetailed with the RASE program: a support group for all ODS students on the spectrum. Now established as a biweekly staple, the group is supervised by a staff psychologist from ODS. The group is a free hour for the students to voice concerns, share stories, and ask questions of their peers, all in a confidential environment (sometimes with free food). Many RASE students (and non-RASE students) find an oasis in RASE and the support group; a place where they are heard and understood.: “When I first entered college, I was not very well prepared. The challenges I ran into might have overwhelmed me, if my transition coach hadn’t been there to help. She assisted me though my experience, helping me to get my priorities straight, as well as remind me that I might not always do perfect and that it’s OK. The support group helped me simply by reminding me that I’m not an alien, and that there are others with similar problems.”

The feedback from each cohort of RASE was encouraging: not only had the RASE students made academic progress, but they also were each claiming individual victories.  Sometimes the victories seem commonplace, but they are significant and empowering to those in the students’ support network. One parent wrote, “I cannot even begin to describe the positive impact [the coach] has had on [my son]. …[my son] has learned so much about every aspect of college life.  [The coach] has taught him so much about not only the academic side of things, but (to me) more importantly, [the coach] has taught him so many life skills.  These are the critical skills needed for living an independent, fulfilling life. The fact that [my son] has successfully lived on his own, never missed a class, learned how to do his own laundry, navigate the shuttle system so that he could go to Meijer to purchase necessities, etc., is just incredible.”

The student mentioned above passed all his classes; this was obviously a source of reassurance and pride for him. However, it was nothing compared to the smile on his face as he described how his coach had taught him to make a shopping list, travel to the store, and purchase groceries on his own. Families were responding relatively well to the push for the students’ increased independence from them. In a testimonial, one parent said of RASE coordinator Heather Rando, “I knew not only did she have an intimate understanding of the challenges students on the spectrum face, but also made it clear that each one is unique, and therefore, there was no ‘one size fits all’ approach on how to work with these students.”

Why is this model so effective? Why are coaches able to push these students? I believe that the answer is the program’s philosophy of resiliency and adaptation. The coaches are encouraged to continually assess and adjust their students’ progress and trajectory. Successful coaches appreciate and play to the student’s individual strengths and preferences, while tactfully addressing worries, warning signs, and unproductive or harmful behaviors. They impact of their work first hand on a daily basis, and invest just as earnestly in the program as the student and RASE coordinator. You can see swells of pride in the coaches when they share stories of their students’ successes. RASE is not a one-way learning experience; the coaches often learn just as much about adaptability and resiliency as their students.

The RASE program offers a tremendous source of transformative exchanges and interactions for all of those involved. The dynamic rapport between the coaches and students is the foundation for building a strong support network and structured routine to sustain the students through their college career: “Heather did a phenomenal job of matching me with a coach that balances encouragement and accountability appropriately.  The RASE program provides a valuable service that ensures individuals on the autism spectrum are treated with dignity and respect, which was a unique quality of Wright State University.”

Success takes many forms in the RASE program, but it always can be traced back to the irreplaceable human element of engagement and accountability. But with great success comes great responsibility. These days, we are getting calls from schools across the nation, asking what our program can do for students on the spectrum. All we can do is share our experiences and continue to expand our programming.

In this field, we are required to justify our efforts and measure our results by GPAs, academic progress, retention, and graduation rates. The beauty of RASE is that it offers a path to meeting all those benchmarks, while also fostering the spirit of inclusivity and adaptation. The RASE program is unique because its coaches intentionally work themselves out of a job. Thankfully, there are always new incoming students who are ready and willing to take a spot in the RASE program.

I have seen former RASE students who once visibly struggled at common daily interactions (e.g., making an appointment at the front desk) who now cracks jokes with our office assistants while he checks in to take his exam. One of our RASE students was featured in the WSU Newsroom [http://webapp2.wright.edu/web1/newsroom/2015/11/30/quantum-leap/] for his stellar academic performance. This student’s success is obviously a point of pride for us (#braggingwrights) but the stories that really capture the essence of the coach-student relationship are the ones we don’t see in the media:

  • Heather once asked me to print a copy of a parting gift one RASE coach made for her student: a “survival guide” themed to his favorite video games
  • one of our first RASE coaches invited his first RASE student to be in his wedding party

But don’t take my word for it; you can read all about the RASE program from: Students, coaches, and parents. [http://www.wright.edu/disability-services/about/testimonials#tab=rase-program] As one student put it, “There are two sides of life. You’ve got to have that academia balance and that social balance,” he said. “Home is where the heart is, and my heart is here.”


Authored by  Diana Riggs at Wright State University (for more information please contact Diana at: diana.riggs@wright.edu)           

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