High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder Program Continues to Grow

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A program at Gateway Community College (GCC) designed to support students with high functioning autism is now in its second year, following a very successful pilot program.

GCC’s Step Forward Program, a transition program for young adults with mild cognitive disabilities, now includes a High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder Program, one of few such programs in the state. The program was designed to create an additional level of support for students on the autism spectrum, beyond the federally mandated ADA services.

“Gateway saw a need and so we created the program,” said Jaime French, the Step Forward director. “I can’t say enough about the vision Gateway has for helping these students be successful in college.”

The program goals are to assist students with the transition to college, to teach students self-advocacy and social skills and to help students progress through their academic programs. Over time, she said, levels of support are phased out as the students become increasingly independent. Most of the students are still under the auspices of their high school district which covers the cost of the program and transportation.

The program couldn’t be more timely. Earlier this year the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a study that showed the likelihood of a child being given a diagnosis of autism, Asperger syndrome or a related disorder in 2008 was one child in 88. According to the CDC, this represents a 23 percent increase over 2006, when the likelihood of a diagnosis was one in 110. In 2002 the rate was one in 155.

Students in the program take up to two college courses and also participate in two non-credit seminars, one that covers social skills in the classroom, workplace and with peers and College 101: How to be Successful in College. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the students gain work experience. Some work in the GCC mailroom or the Library and Learning Commons and others work out in the community.

“Fridays are fun," French said. "Students work on interpersonal skills. We may go to a museum and out to lunch."

On November 19, students in the Step Forward program organized and held a bake sale on the Fairway, raising $180 for Hurricane Sandy relief.

GCC’s support of Step Forward has been “amazing,” French said. “Gateway wanted to find ways to help these students who might typically find college overwhelming and then walk away from a class or have to repeat the same class over.” French said. Academic Affairs Dean Mark Kosinski and Dean Vicki Bozzuto, dean of Continuing Education & Workforce Development, have provided invaluable support to the program, as has GCC President Dorsey L. Kendrick. In October, she spoke about her own journey in education.

“She told the students about how she grew up as a young girl and how much school meant to her," French said. "She told them that she liked helping others in the class and sometimes she would get a small stipend that she would use to buy her school supplies. She showed them that her education wasn’t just handed to her; she faced challenges and many people helped her along the way.”

French said the students were impressed by Kendrick's beginnings and how Dr. Kendrick went on to become a college president.