New Transition Program for Students With Autism

By Ehrin Faulborn
Staff Writer

Recently, autism awareness has swept across the nation. Programs like Autism Speaks are encouraging parents to look for the early signs of the disorder, and for good reason. In February 2007 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a prevalence report on autism. The study of eight-year-olds conducted from 2000-2002 stated that 1 in every 150 American children will be diagnosed with autism.

Autism is a neurobiological disorder which is usually diagnosed within the first three years of a child’s life, although through further testing, autism can be detected as early as six months of age. Although the disorder occurs in both genders, it is four times more likely to be found in boys than in girls. Children with autism often show difficulty developing non-verbal communication skills, as well as lack of interest in their environment and lack of empathy. In addition to those symptoms, 40% of people with autism will never speak.

Since the report released in 2007, the want and need for the education of students with autism has increasingly grown. Marywood University is helping that cause with a new program, which started this fall. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that any student with autism can enroll in public schools K-12 until age 21. Marywood University, however, is giving students with autism the college experience.

Dr. Patricia Arter, who heads this project, is working with the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit (NEIU) to give students with autism “real life” experiences in order to prepare them for the “real world.” What is a better way to aid these students than to help them achieve a normal life? The program, which has been on the drawing board for almost three and a half years now, involves four students with autism working and learning on campus.

It all started when a doctorate student, Mary Murphy Fox, came to Dr. Arter in hopes that Marywood could create a program to suit the needs of children with autism. Although they are on a college campus, the students are not enrolled in University classes. They do, however, interact with the students daily. By providing the project on a college campus, the students are able to make the normal transition into the “real world.” The faculty are not the only people involved in the project; in fact, Marywood students play a big role in development in the classroom.

Starting this fall, Marywood will host four students aged 18-21 on campus. The students, who attend classes at their level, attend Marywood each day and participate not only in academics but also campus life. The students come to Marywood for a half-day of functional activities, including classes, and a half day of vocational activities. Their instructor, Jack Kirby, was hired this year specifically for the project.

Work Study students who chose to work in classes with autistic students work as job coaches. When the students go to work, the job coaches do as well. They are mentors who help the students gain life experience. These job coaches also help out in the classroom wherever it is needed. In addition to this, the program is working to get Art and Music majors involved. The Council of Exceptional Children (CEC) is currently working with Music Therapy and Art Therapy to help these students gain experience in these fields.

In addition to students in music and art, some of Dr. Donahue’s Physical Education students are also helping with the project. The students with autism attend two weekly physical education classes that the students and Dr. Donahue provide.

“We want this to involve both Marywood Students and students with autism.” Dr. Patricia Arter said. “We have a community-based campus, they’re learning in the real world.”

The goal of the program is to encourage independent living and competitive employment. “We want the students to be hired for their skills. [If they come to a college campus] they take the bus, they learn to do their own laundry, they go to the post office, they are put in life situations instead of a workshop.”

According to Dr. Arter, this is the first program of its kind. “It’s an innovative program which could be come a national model if it’s successful.” Dr. Arter pointed out that it was a program to involve both Marywood Students and the new students in the project. “We try to advertise when we need help on campus”

Any students interested in helping on campus or in their major can contact Dr. Arter in the Special Education department.