The Achieve Degree: Meeting the Needs of Students with Autism

The Achieve Degree: Meeting the Needs of Students with Autism

As a consultant to schools on programming for students with autism, I’m used to proposing ideas and hearing, “Sounds great, but sorry, we can’t do that.” Good intentions sometimes can’t overcome limitations in resources. But when I proposed the development of a bachelor’s degree designed to meet the specific needs of students with autism to The Sage Colleges (N.Y.), the response was very different. From the president on down, the prevailing attitude was, “How can we make this happen?”

We did make it happen. Dubbed the Achieve Degree, it is a full 120-credit bachelor’s degree offered completely online. The inspiration for this program was my experience helping students with autism get through high school.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, with individuals presenting very differently and with different levels of impairment. At the most severe end of the spectrum are people who lack communication abilities, have severe deficits in social skills, and who present with very challenging behavior. The other end of the autism spectrum includes those individuals who are much more independent and functional in their daily lives, but who are still challenged by communication, social, and other deficits. I had the privilege of working with teens on the higher end of the spectrum, who were participating in mainstream high school classes with little support. These individuals had some difficult experiences and were adamant about not continuing their education any longer than necessary.

My other specialization – teaching online – dates back 12 years. Online education is flexible, allowing students to learn from literally anywhere in the world, and on their own schedules. As chair of the Center for Applied Behavior Analysis at The Sage Colleges, my teaching philosophy is based upon providing students with a variety of educational experiences, and working individually with students as much as possible. Students in Sage’s master’s and certificate programs in ABA and Autism learn about behavior analysis through a wide variety of experiences, including video and audio lectures, written materials, interactive discussion forums, quizzes, assignments, and interactive group work.

Online learning is a perfect fit for individuals on the autism spectrum who are capable of meeting the academic challenges of college, but who are reluctant to attend a traditional college setting for a variety of reasons. Not only can students learn from their most comfortable environment, and not have to leave their support systems and families, but they do not have to navigate a confusing college campus, encounter difficult social challenges, or manage interactions that may be intolerably uncomfortable.

Of course, it is preferable for students with autism to experience a traditional college environment if they are willing and able to do so. The Achieve Degree is intended as an alternative for those who are not, but who are academically capable of earning a college degree.

The goal of the Achieve Degree is the same as for any college program: to provide students with a solid education that enables them to make empowering choices about further graduate education and/or career paths. Offering a broad liberal studies education with an emphasis in computer science, we are preparing students on the autism spectrum to be functional members of society, and to attain careers that fit their individual skills sets and personal goals.

Several key features of the Achieve Degree make it different from other online college offerings and ideal for students on the autism spectrum. The program is deliberately small in size – class size is limited to 15 students – and faculty are trained in the specific needs of students on the autism spectrum. Each student is assigned a one-to-one mentor who is specifically trained in supporting adults with high functioning autism with respect to college situations.

Mentors are available via Skype, phone, and email, up to three hours per week. Additionally, mentors can provide consultation on specific student needs to faculty teaching Achieve Degree courses. The highly supportive nature of the Achieve Degree makes it very different from other online college offerings, and much more likely to foster success in our target audience.

Coursework is presented in eight-week sessions rather than 15-week semesters. Students take no more than two courses at a time, which fits well with a person with autism’s natural tendency to focus on one or two topics at a time. Coursework is taken year-round, with short breaks between fall, spring and summer terms. There is no long summer or winter break to disrupt learning and weaken good study habits.

For the first two years, students take four credits per session:  one 3-credit course is paired with one 1-credit Life Lab. Life Labs are courses specifically designed to provide students with instruction in important life skills such as time management and organization, goal-setting, writing, personal finance, and more. The second two years of the program consist of 6-credit sessions, with students taking two 3-credit courses at a time.

Finally, the Achieve Degree offers students maximum flexibility in how they receive information and in how their understanding of content assessed. Every course is structured to look and work the same – so students do not have to continuously adjust to new systems. Each course is broken into eight one-week modules, and each module contains consistent information and activities. Readings are available in textbooks and online, through the Sage Colleges’ digital library.

Lectures are presented in multiple on-demand formats, including text, audio, and audio-visual. Students can choose the learning style that works best for them, and access material in that style or in a combination of styles, whenever and as many times as they want. Participation in written discussion forms is required of every student, and written assignments are the ultimate goal for every student. If an individual is having difficulty with writing longer assignments, however, he/she will be able to submit alternative assignments (such as audio essays or audio-visual presentations), while working with his/her mentor to strengthen writing skills.

All exams are available in different formats: multiple choice and true/false, or short answer and essay style. With mentor support, students can choose the exam style that is most comfortable in each class. Mentors also work with students to foster social skills across the distance modalities so common across society: phone, email, social networking, Skype, etc.

Launching the Program

What’s made the Achieve Degree possible has been the willingness of different departments, administrators, educators, and professionals – most of whom have no knowledge of autism – to work together. A program director with expertise in treatment of autism, Laura Stolfi, was hired, and I continue to serve as advisor to the program on program design, including course development, mentor and faculty training. Together, we work with other departments to ensure the proper support for online students and students with special needs, as well as do a great deal of outreach for the program.

In addition, Sage partnered with Excelsior College’s Educators Serving Educators (ESE) division, which offers their world-class experience in delivering online education to other colleges seeking to increase or expand their online offerings. ESE’s contributions have included project management, marketing and research support, course development, and continuing marketing and admissions assistance. In return, Sage and Excelsior share revenue from the program for the first five years.

 The Achieve Degree is the result of many people’s hard work, at Sage and ESE. This is a costly program to develop and run, including individualized learning modules, extensive support services, and expenses associated with mentors. The Achieve Degree is a vision for high-quality education for an underserved population, and we are already beginning to see a return on our investment in the responses of our students. One trial course student enthused, “Finally, a program designed to work the way my brain does!”

As we see our students achieve their dreams, everyone who is involved in the Achieve Degree will be able to take pride in our collective hard work, innovation, and willingness to dream.


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