Exploring positive autism-spectrum outcomes in higher ed

While about one-third of high school students with autism now enroll in college, they are much less likely than other students, both with and without (other) disabilities, to graduate from college, national research has shown.

California Lutheran University’s Spectrum of Opportunity Conference offers perspectives from college students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and professionals who work with them.

This year’s event in October, the third one since 2016, drew more than 360 attendees from throughout the state, other states and Canada.

“It’s important for parents and educators to hear and learn from students’ first-hand experiences—they are the autism experts,” says Edlyn PeÁ±a, director of Cal Lutheran’s Autism and Communication Center. PeÁ±a, whose son has autism, targets college preparation for ASD students in her research.

The first Spectrum of Opportunity Conference, held in March 2016, had two nonspeaking keynote presenters and 400 attendees.

By that summer, the university had established the Autism and Communication Center, a national resource to help empower autistic individuals and the people who support them.

The event aims to help high school students and their parents, plus faculty and administrators, learn about what’s needed to succeed. The focus goes beyond access and transition to cover critical insights about persistence as well.

Students with autism are often “very academically capable, but need assistance navigating the social environment, both inside and outside the classroom,” says PeÁ±a.

Building meaningful friendships is particularly challenging for students who type to communicate, she adds.

Training wanted, not just programs

Colleges that develop programs to provide extra support to students with ASD have made a “great start,” says PeÁ±a.

But she’d like to see more inclusive environments for these students in every class, with widespread faculty development covering how to help all ASD students, including those who aren’t in a special program and those who may not even have self-identified with the disabilities services office.

When presenting to faculty at community colleges, she finds they need to hear that “what is perceived as disruptive or rude behavior from the student is not usually intentional,” she says.

“I’m often called in a reactionary manner because something happened.”

One common scenario: A student loses control of himself and must find a space to de-escalate and regulate, but the faculty member feels the student is getting aggressive and calls campus police.

“It’s helpful for faculty and administrators to know what to do in those situations,” she says.

PeÁ±a says she would like to see students being encouraged more to disclose their disabilities and more families promoting self-advocacy and skill-building.

“Communicating about challenges and strengths is extremely helpful to faculty and administrators.”


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