Autistic students can succeed with support

By Dean Galiffa

Jane Hutchinson, of Springfield, Pa., pursued immediate action for her son Frank’s future education when he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3.

After exhibiting delays in speech and occupational development, Hutchinson’s son received early intervention services through the state.

When the Delaware County Intermediate Unit suggested that Hutchinson enroll him in a developmental delay preschool, she did so at the Pennington Education Center, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

“At first it was very difficult,” Hutchinson said. “One day at the pool, I remember explaining to another parent where Frank would be attending school. That was the first time I said the word ‘autism.’”

But over the next several years, Hutchinson educated herself on the disorder.

“When Frank was first diagnosed, it was one in every 150 kids,” she explained. “Now, it’s one in every 65. And, it’s more common in boys over girls. I found comfort in that knowledge.”

For Hutchinson, choosing to enroll her child in specialized education rather than mainstream resulted from a combination of suggestions from doctors and educators.

“Typical kids were not Frank’s peers,” she said. “Kids with autism were Frank’s peers.”

Hutchinson’s son is now enrolled at The Vanguard School, a specialized education program of Valley Forge Educational Services.

As she prepares for her son’s future, Hutchinson faces a decision similar to many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder: what postsecondary life for their child will be.

In the journal of Remedial and Special Education, researchers L.E. Smith and Dr. Kristy Anderson noted that families parenting a child with autism spectrum disorder experienced significant stress levels, especially during adolescence. Parents also played critical roles in their child’s post-high school transition.

According to Dr. Jo M. Hendrickson writing for the journal of Education & Treatment of Children, “autism-friendly” school environments positively impacted the mental health of family members and the student.

However, data that indicated a college environment to be autism-friendly, meaning each student received person-centered aid, was scarce. The Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability suggested that traditional college accommodations did not meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Consequently, these students are at high risk for dropping out. Furthermore, experts evidence suggested that the views of parents and students attending postsecondary programs did not align, interfering with the student’s progress.

A study published in the Journal of Developmental & Physical Disabilities suggested similar conclusions.

In interviews conducted between 10 parents and six university personnel, five themes emerged, including the personal needs of students with disabilities and their transition to the university.

Findings suggest that services offered by universities may need to be expanded to meet the unique requirements of students with disabilities.

The journal of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry & Mental Health evaluated the transition from high school to postsecondary options among students with autism.

The students used an online interactive program called the Better Outcomes & Successful Transitions for Autism, or BOOST-A.

The program “empowers adolescents on the autism spectrum to plan their transition from school to further study, training, or employment,” according to the article. “The trial will involve adolescents on the autism spectrum in high school and their parents, who will be alternately assigned to a control group….or an intervention group.”

The goal of BOOST-A is for students with disabilities to successfully transition from high school to postsecondary options, including employment.

The University of Iowa Realizing Educational and Career Hopes Program, or UI REACH, as described in the journal of Education & Treatment of Children, is a “well-integrated two year certificate program.”

The program integrates students with disabilities into the mainstream college atmosphere. Residence halls and classrooms are occupied with typical students and students with disabilities alike.

A student can earn a collegiate, trade, or technical certificate after two to four years of study.

Despite the progress made at some institutions of higher learning, Hutchinson said she still struggles with the decision to allow her son to attend a postsecondary institution.

“When I sent him to specialized education, I looked at it as Frank being in a community of his peers,” said Hutchinson. “He would not have benefited from attending mainstream education. Now, he’s getting to the age of making another big commitment.”

The Vanguard School, where Hutchinson’s son currently attends, allows students to remain enrolled until age 21.

“After that, I really would like to see Frank in a college setting,” said Hutchinson. “But I am very hesitant to make those decisions now. College isn’t specialized education, and Frank would have to learn basic skills in order to live on his own.”

Hutchinson explained that her son may experience difficulty leaving high school.

“Frank does not transition well,” she added. “The idea of college is too open-ended to him, and he views the world in a very precise and logical way.”

For now, Hutchinson hopes that her son will pursue higher education and possibly attend trade school.

“He’s very hands-on,” she explained. “I think a trade would be good for his stronger assets. More than anything, I just want him to be happy. I want the best for him.”

Contact Dean Galiffa at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu