College Options for Autism

Heather Smith - Thursday, September 01, 2011

Colleges recently reported to the U.S. Department of Education that, among students with disabilities, 31 percent have some kind of learning disability. Starting in January, the  Sage Colleges in Albany, NY will be offering a new all-online bachelor’s degree program, the Achieve Degree, designed specifically for students on the autism spectrum and for students with learning disabilities. The program offers a bachelor of arts in liberal studies with an emphasis in computer science and is the first of its kind to offer a four-year degree. Students in the program have to meet the same admissions standards and academic requirements as students in other parts of the college but can individualize how they work towards the degree, says InsideHigherEd: They can opt for multiple-choice over essay exams, or choose their preferred form of content delivery – audio, video or text – and absorb the lectures that way. The program is also year-round, so students can take fewer courses per term and not drift off during summer break.

Bellevue College in Washington State offers an associate degree in occupational and life skills for students. While it was an “anomaly” when it started, it graduated its first class in 2008 and enrollment is up 12 percent, to 60 students.


There’s a growing demand for programs like those at Sage Colleges and Bellevue College. The advantage of such specially-designed programs is that students on the autism spectrum, for whom social interactions can pose significant challenges in learning, can complete college-level coursework in a non-traditional educational setting: 

Dana Reinecke, in the department of applied behavior analysis at the Sage Colleges in Albany, N.Y., said she realized that through online learning, students with autism can overcome those barriers [presented by a traditional classroom setting]. “It allows them to learn from their most comfortable environment, whether it’s home, a library, a friend’s house, a treatment center, their psychiatrist’s office,” she said. “It takes away that need to be in a room full of people that they might be uncomfortable with.”

Tuition for the Sage Colleges program — $27,000 the first year, slightly more the second year, then $43,000 — is comparable to that of traditional colleges.

While there are still advantages to a traditional classroom, courses that can be completed at home sound like good option. Ruth Zanoni tried home-schooling her 14-year-old daughter, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, with online education as a supplement; bullying in her daughter’s Maryland public school had become “too intense.” The sensory overload from the physical environment of a typical public school — fluorescent lights, jam-packed hallways” — can be overwhelming for students on the autism spectrum of any age.

At home in Howard County, Ms. Zanoni’s daughter did well pursuing math through videos from Khan Academy, a not-for-profit provider of online educational videos and activities, and working on her social skills using an online role-playing game, but she faltered taking French and then Italian online. Ms. Zanoni said she had to work hard to keep her daughter on task online and felt she needed additional face-to-face support. Ms. Zanoni eventually found a private school that specialized in working with students like her daughter.

“There’s a huge value to online education [for students with autism], but it depends on how it’s introduced and the nature of the person,” Ms. Zanoni said.

There are some aspects about a “bricks and mortar” school that can be especially helpful for autistic students to learn to make their way in the world. One can’t be — well, one shouldn’t be — online forever; what’s needed is for schools to help create environments in which students with sensory sensitivities, learning disabilities and more can feel safe and supported.

Of course, that’s easy to say, but it can be challenging for school districts and for colleges — at a time of budget cuts, no less — to achieve. Half of colleges say that “financial barriers” prevent them from training faculty and staff to accommodate students disabilities and purchasing “appropriate technology.” At my own college, professors — myself included — with children with learning disabilities and on the autism spectrum — have done some informal outreach to other faculty members and certainly always try to give extra support to students in our classes. But more comprehensive training and educating of faculty and staff about the challenges and strengths of students with disabilities is still called for.

Other college options for students on the autism spectrum include College Living Experience, a privately operated and for-profit company that operates residential programs to assist students with special needs in attending college; more information about this program can be found here and here.

If you’re a post-secondary student with disabilities, I’d also like to recommend  DREAM, which stands for Disability Rights, Education, Activism and which is a “genuinely cross-disabilities effort” that “aims to fully include students with the full range of disabilities–psychiatric, cognitive, developmental, mental, physical, intellectual, sensory, and psychological.” The group also has a Facebook page and the website has some great information about students’ rights, education and advocacy.

Source:  "College Options For Autistic Students and Students with Disabilities | Care2 Causes." Care2 - Largest Online Community for Healthy and Green Living, Human Rights and Animal Welfare. Web. 01 Sept. 2011.



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