Recently, an undergraduate program has emerged which is specifically designed for students with an autism spectrum disorder and other special needs. The college and classroom experience can be a daunting one, for special needs and typically developing students alike; however, students with an ASD may not have the skills necessary to navigate the stress accompanied with obtaining a higher education, or the appropriate social skills to feel comfortable with campus life. The Achieve degree has emerged as a result of a growing need for a college program which addresses some of the hardships expressed by students with an ASD. For many students, the ability to handle college work is present, but the traditional classroom experience doesn't work. The Achieve degree gives students with an ASD the opportunity to obtain a higher education within a program which is specifically designed to meet their needs.
Original article written by AD Midd
Students with autism spectrum disorders are usually very fortunate in their K-12 education. Throughout the past few decades, knowledge about the disorders and pressure from the private and public sector has made it possible for a child with autism to receive a high school education tailored to his or her own needs. Through special education research, the learning styles of autistic children have been unlocked and, in many mild cases of the disorder and even some severe cases, the true genius of these children has been allowed to shine.
However, higher education, with its tuition-based funding and non-mandatory status, has struggled to keep up with K-12 when it comes to offering autistic students the opportunity for a college degree. As a college educator, I have had only one student in all of my classes who could be called autistic (she has Asperger’s). Though this student was really a good writer and received a passing grade in my class, she wasn’t really able to engage in her education they way that she needed to. I had a class of 25 students that all needed “traditional” instruction and no training on how to integrate special educational needs at the classroom level (I am only certified as a special needs tutor, which is a different deck of cards). Never mind that there is no book on how to teach special needs students in the college classroom available; most teachers don’t even receive training on how to teach mainstream students for that matter.
But this is all about to change at one school in New York…
A Degree for Autistic Children
The Sage Colleges of Albany, New York are ranked among some of the best private educational institutions in the northeast. Among the schools that make up The Sage Colleges is the Esteves School of Education. It is there that the idea for a new program called Achieve was born in the mind of Dana R. Reinecke, PhD, BCBA-D. Dr. Reinecke is the director of Sage’s online master’s program in Applied Behavioral Analysis & Autism. Dr. Reinecke believed that the ability to perform at the college level was there for many students on the autism spectrum, what was missing was a program designed to meet their needs.
Achieve is a 4-year online Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies with an added emphasis in Computer Science applications designed to develop skills that will be in demand after graduation. Under Dr. Reinecke’s supervision, each course is tailored for the specific students in the program. Each educational path is designed to meet the needs of that student in a freeform approach to education that seeks to eliminate the normal “triggers” for autistic individuals (bright colors, flashing designs, unfamiliar faces, etc.).
Students in the Achieve program take classes in six, eight-week terms throughout each year. For each term in the first two years of study, students are required to take one 3-credit academic course and one 1-credit life skills course which emphasizes skills such as finance, independent living, interviewing, and online study skills specifically geared at further educating autistic students about the requirements of everyday life after school. Once the first two years are complete, students will take two 3-credit academic courses each term, leading to a 120-credit degree in four years. Achieve students go to school year round.
In addition, each student is assigned a faculty mentor who is trained in assisting autistic students. This mentor stays with the student throughout their four years, offering advice and counseling as needed as well as feedback designed to help the student learn how to learn at the college level and beyond.
The degree program is the first of its kind and admitted its first students this past January. Five students started the program, which is capped at 15 students per year. Students can begin study in either January or September. This ensures that each student has access to the support he or she needs throughout their time at The Sage Colleges.