New program helps students with autism succeed in college classes

As the number of people diagnosed with Asperger’s and Autism continues to grow, Kirkwood Community College is beginning a program specifically designed to help students with this diagnosis be successful as college students.

The Focused Skill Training program (FST) has been developed by staff in the Kirkwood Learning Services department over the past year and it was launched at the start of fall semester.

College bound students with the Asperger’s or Autism diagnosis who choose to participate in the FST program will work with Kirkwood staff to build an individual plan which may include learning how to navigate the social aspects of college, self-advocacy training and organizational strategies.

“With programs like Focused Skills Training, post-secondary education is a viable option for students with milder forms of Autism,” said Focused Skill Training Coordinator Kelly Wise. “The transition to college is difficult for many students. However, for those with Asperger’s and Autism transition can be especially difficult since college has less structure than high school and there are new social and academic demands. These students often need support beyond the accommodations offered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

“The needs of students with these disorders are more understood now, but we’re still trying to learn how to best serve them as they become adults,” Wise said. “This program helps accomplish that.”

Kirkwood is one of the first community colleges to develop a program that pairs students with Asperger’s or Autism with an educational coach. These coaches have special training and experience working with students diagnosed with these disorders.

“One thing we’ve learned about students with this disorder is their concern that they tend to get overwhelmed on a college campus,” said Kirkwood Learning Services Dean Chuck Hinz. “The FST staff can help the students feel more included at Kirkwood by modeling appropriate social behaviors and helping them navigate the college system. Involving these students in the life of the campus should also help students without disabilities understand and learn more about their peers.”

For one family from Manchester, Iowa, this program is coming at the right time. Terese Jurgensen’s 16-year old son has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and plans to attend Kirkwood Community College before transferring to the University of Iowa to study law.

“Special education parents are scared for their children,” said Jurgensen. “We know they have dreams and aspirations. Sometimes they just need some modifications in school settings to help them succeed. There are some really bright kids on the Autism spectrum, but many need extra structure."

Jurgensen said her son is in mainstreamed classes in high school and excels in most subject areas. He needs help with things like one-on-one conversations, structure, time management, organization and breaking down projects to a manageable state. That’s something that FST staff will be able to help with.

“The thing I’m most excited about with this new program is that my son will have the personal attention of his educational coach, who will be about his age and understands the characteristics of Asperger’s,” added Jurgensen. “For him to have someone who can help him feel comfortable at college could be the difference he needs for success.”

“We’re working with local school districts to identify students on the Autism spectrum who want to go to college,” added Hinz. “We hope to identify them early enough, so we can work with the school to develop a plan to help them transition from high school to Kirkwood. Success here can translate to more success living and working independently.”

For more information on this new pilot program contact the Kirkwood Learning Services department at 319-398-5574.

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