Newswise — Dr. Laura Klinger well remembers the first time she met an adorable preschool child with Asperger's syndrome soon after joining The University of Alabama in 1993 as a clinical psychologist.
This child, said Klinger, was one of the first she evaluated in her role as the founder and director of a UA research clinic specializing in autism and related disorders. Since Klinger's arrival at UA some 15 years ago, the number of diagnosed cases of Autism Spectrum Disorders (which includes autism, Asperger's syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder) worldwide has exploded, the disorders have received widespread media attention, and Klinger has evaluated and provided therapy services to hundreds of children.
As for the child? Well, this child enrolled this fall as a freshman at The University of Alabama.
Klinger said she didn't initially envision the UA clinic expanding its services to adults, but as the child and the thousands of others, nationwide, with an autism spectrum disorder began reaching college age, she saw an unmet need.
Through a one-year grant awarded Klinger from the Alabama Council for Developmental Disabilities, UA developed and launched, this year, a college transition program, known as UA-ACTS, for students with an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. Three freshmen are enrolled in the program. Klinger envisions the UA program becoming self-sustaining and eventually expanding to serve up to 16 students.
The grant enabled UA to hire Dr. Sarah O'Kelley, a postdoctoral clinician, in a half-time position to develop and lead the college transition program.
Difficulties in social interaction - including knowing how to make friends - poor conversation skills, and obsessive interests are characteristics of people with autism spectrum disorders. Individuals with an ASD have IQ scores from the range of mental retardation to giftedness. Those with average IQ's or higher have the academic skills necessary for success in college, Klinger says.
College life is, for many, the near ultimate social interaction challenge, and it's faced, for the first time, without parental supervision. For children with the disorder, it's particularly taxing.
"These students are given more independence than they have ever been given before," Klinger says. "They really want to be just like any other freshman on campus."
Students in the program, who must first be admitted into UA on their own merits, are assigned graduate level therapists/mentors to assist them in navigating the challenges of college life. During both individual and group sessions, the students are guided in such areas as improving interactions with instructors, building and managing relationships with college peers, including roommates, managing time and improving daily living skills. The students are also monitored for signs of high anxiety and depression, challenges faced by many with an autism spectrum disorder.
The UA-ACTS program coordinates services with UA's Office of Disability Services. UA instructors and Residential Life staff are educated on some of the challenges faced by people with ASD in the college environment.
The magnitude of students entering college world-wide with ASD is a testimony to the success of early intervention programs, Klinger says. In times past, college would not have even been considered an option for many similar students, she says. Others would have found the road rocky.
"For the most part, they don't do very well," Klinger said of previous generations of students attending college with ASD. Some, of course, overcame the obstacles. Klinger hopes the program can give current students a needed boost.
In addition to growing the program, an important goal is to raise scholarship funds to assist the families of future students in paying the program's $3,000 a semester fee.
Despite the growing demand, only a handful of such programs exist nationwide. One of O'Kelley's first tasks was to evaluate existing programs and attempt to incorporate some of the best elements from each into the UA program.
"We're getting calls from all over the country," Klinger said.
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