UI lags in special programs for Autistic students

BY JENNY EARL | MARCH 23, 2012 6:30 AM

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Colleges have started to develop special programs geared toward students with autism, but the University of Iowa — which only has 12 registered students who suffer from autism — hasn't followed suit.

With the rise in the number of children being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, experts say universities that have special programs are growing in demand.

"It's not just the service providers," said Jane Brown, the director of the College Autism Spectrum, an independent organization of professionals who assist students with autism spectrum disorders to navigate college options. "We've been doing this for a long time, and working with just the students doesn't work. You really have to create a community and train everyone on campus to be able to interact and understand students on the spectrum."

Universities that have these programs have 50 to 80 students on the spectrum who disclose their status at campus disabilities services.

Brown said collaborating all of these individual efforts into one solid program would quickly increase the UI population of students with autism spectrum disorder's.

Because students on the autism spectrum only make up about .06 percent of the UI student population, UI officials said the number of students and degree of support they need isn't great enough to create a program.

"I think it depends on the number of students and the degree of support they need," said Mark Harris, the director of UI Student Disability Services. "It's not something our office would be able to unilaterally offer. Those programs have full staffs and run independently going beyond academic accommodations."

The UI has seen an increase in students with autism spectrum disorders, he said, but numbers still aren't large.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of 110 children in the United States are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, making it the fastest-growing developmental disability.

The UI generally works with students on the autism spectrum with Asperger's disorder, a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others, said Kathleen Staley, the assistant director for outreach at the University Counseling Service.

Staley holds a group-therapy session with UI students with Asperger's once a week for an hour to work on various issues and problems of daily life.

"We talk about how to manage daily routines of life and some of the specifics of that because sometimes that's a difficult thing," she said. "A lot of people with Asperger's have problems picking up interpersonal cues, controlling emotion and anger — things like that."

Harris said the UI, as well as many other universities, struggle deciding how to integrate students into the mainstream student population.

The UI doesn't offer a certain living space designated for students with autism spectrum disorders, he said. Deciding whether to have centralized living environments is something that universities often debate.

Programs and facilities that offer assistance to students with autism spectrum disorders are spread out among the UI College of Education, Student Disability Services, and the University Counseling Service.

Harris said he would like to see more students on the autism spectrum attend college, especially the UI.

"I think [students with an autism spectrum disorder] enrich the diversity tremendously," he said. "The students we work with that are on the spectrum have a unique talent, skill, or perspective. Our job is to identify, enrich, and help that."

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