Laura Spitalniak at Higher Ed Dive: interview Sarah Howorth, professor of special education at the University of Maine.
In 2019, Howorth led the pilot for the University of Maine’s Step Up to College, a program meant to model how colleges can effectively support students with autism spectrum disorder. During that five-week session, she incorporated the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, or PEERS, a social skills program for neurodivergent students developed by Elizabeth Laugeson at the University of California, Los Angeles.
What can accessibility offices on campuses without specialized programs like Step Up do to support students on the spectrum?
There’s lots of room for improvement on college campuses. The typical accommodations that are offered, like note takers, closed captioning or extended time on tests, are not necessarily what students with autism need.
On the bright side, when I have spoken to our students’ accessibility service, they’ve seen a large increase in the number of students with autism not just coming to university but asking for support. That’s a testament to how we as a society have enabled them to be self-advocates.
If you think of the social skills involved in finding the student accessibility services on campus and talking to a stranger about your challenges, that’s brave.
On the other hand, it can be hard to fulfill their requests without modifying the curriculum. As an example, our student accessibility services director told me that students with autism sometimes ask to be excluded from group work. That’s not necessarily an accommodation, because a lot of college courses are more interactive. Plus you have internships and job placements. Life is honestly one big group experience.So what could help in this situation is giving those students somebody to sit down with and unpack a social situation that happened, so they can ask questions like, “What could have been done differently?” That’s not necessarily counseling, because it’s not that they are having mental health issues. It’s just that they are having interpersonal social communication issues.