When five graduate students majoring in special education approached Dr. Millie Gore during the past spring semester about the need for universities to provide programs for academically talented high-school graduates with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she encouraged them to gather their ideas and to submit a proposal to the university.
All but one of the students in Gore’s Special Education Seminar class were teachers. One graduate student was particularly concerned because her high-functioning students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) had no place to go upon graduation.
Gore warned her students that it often took six to eight years for such types of proposals to be reviewed, approved, and funded. So, it came as a surprise when the university offered full institutional support for the first year after the initial review.
“This program is the first of its kind in the nation,” said Gore, who is a professor of special education and serves as the director of the new Autism Support Program.
Designed to provide students with Autism Spectrum Disorders with a nurturing and protected college experience, at the heart of the program is the development of independent living and social skills through the assistance of trained peers supervised by faculty.
Beginning this semester, three students diagnosed with ASD moved into one of the Hampstead Boulevard homes owned by MSU. They live with three trained MSU students who supervise their studies, advise them about social interactions with peers and professors, and serve as a guide to other valuable independent living skills.
Gore is also working on finding a Delta-certified therapy dog to live in the house with the students. She said that grooming and stroking dogs often has a calming effect for those with autism.
Graduate student Jessica Dunn, one of the original students to propose the plan, serves as head of household.
“We are living in the house throughout the semester. We break our time into shifts, so that someone is in the house at all times,” Dunn said. “I’m exciting about the program because this is my last semester, and I’m going out with a bang, so to speak.”
Also beginning this semester, MSU educators will begin evaluating high school applicants as early as their freshman year. This phase of the project will aid high school counselors in assisting students with ASD in meeting the core curriculum they need to attend college and major in particular programs.
A few autistic programs are available throughout the country. But what makes the MSU program distinct is the personalization and funding. Gore said that other programs, such as the one at the Western Kentucky University, require all students with autism to live entirely independently, while other programs are run by private corporations and are costly at about $35,000 a year.
One of the biggest challenges for the program will be finding funding sources to continue the program beyond this year. Gore said she is busily working to apply for grants and find others interested in giving to the program.
“I hope we establish a good foundation for an ongoing support program,” said Dunn.
What is Autism?
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.
Autism is one of five disorders that falls under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by “severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development.”
Autism is a spectrum disorder, and although it is defined by a certain set of behaviors, children and adults with autism can exhibit any combination of these behaviors in any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act completely different from one another and have varying capabilities.
You may hear different terms used to describe children within this spectrum, such as autistic-like, autistic tendencies, autism spectrum, high-functioning or low-functioning autism, more-abled or less-abled, but more important than the term used to describe autism is understanding that whatever the diagnosis, children with autism can learn and function normally and show improvement with appropriate treatment and education.
Source: Autism Society of America
Authors of the MSU Autism Support Program