College students with autism have the same desire as other college students: to become independent and obtain a degree that will lead to a career. Many need support yet retreat from services that focus on remediating difficulties, to the exclusion of developing strengths. They view intervention focused on remediating difficulties as an obstacle to independence and career planning and as a contributor to a system of inequity and oppression. Like all young adults, they need experiences that build self-esteem, self-determination, problem solving, and sense of self.
I learned this after failed attempts to offer social skills groups for these students. They simply did not want them; attendance was awful! Instead of viewing these students as “non-compliant,” I listened to what they had to say. They were tired of being viewed as disabled, as “less than” and of being ashamed of their autism. They saw themselves as more than their autism. They helped me explore other avenues to support their success.
Research was on our side. It has been well documented that college students who are connected and involved in campus activities have better outcomes. What better way to address problem solving, executive functioning, and social skill development with students with autism than through guided real-life social experiences?
As a result, my focus shifted to supporting equity and inclusion. I began by listening to the experiences of undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students with autism. Many were already leaders: working in faculty labs, in honors programs, as residence hall assistants, and as teaching and graduate assistants. They taught me that actively engaging students with autism means putting their strengths first. I learned that as one person begins to shine, he becomes an inspiration and connection for another who may be more reluctant. As they succeed, they challenge and shatter preconceived notions of autism.
I now facilitate two programs: P.A.L.S. and Peer to Peer as an alternative to social skills groups. P.A.L.S. pairs a neurotypical student with a peer with autism as equals, which is counter to traditional mentoring programs where the neurotypical student gets paid. Rather, both students are able to earn experiential learning credit. Pairs agree to spend three to five hours per week together in mutually enjoyable activities. Peer to Peer pairs an upper-division student with autism with a student new to the campus who has autism. The more experienced student assists the newer one in navigating the campus and solving problems unique to those with autism.
Both programs are a win-win. Neurotypical students have had preconceived notions of autism shattered. Students with autism have begun to build a community, obtain supports from others, and develop their own voice. For example, a neurotypical student was stunned when her P.A.L. invited her to see his rock band perform at a club. An experienced member of Peer to Peer was shocked when his peer, newer to campus, told him that he wished the peer could live in his ear, giving him helpful suggestions all the time.
I also worked with students to form an organization of students with autism. Members decided their mission and activities. As faculty advisor, I have witnessed incredible self-advocacy among the members. They have met with leadership from the Office of Student Affairs and the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to discuss their perspectives on accessibility and inclusion across campus. They also successfully wrote initial and follow-up grants to fund the creation of a safe space for those with autism. The second grant opened the space to students with any type of disability. Trained students with and without autism volunteer to staff the space. As students give back, they develop confidence and practice skills.
Students are feeling empowered. They are recognizing their strengths and applying strategies to master meaningful challenges. Many are accepting their autism as a form of diversity. As students with autism obtain degrees in everything from public health to German, neurobiology to photography, and speech language pathology to music, they are coming to know who they are and what they have to offer. They have created a community of their own, found their voice, and welcomed others. We have so much to learn from our college students with autism. These students are, and will continue to be, leaders on campus and in the work force.
Lisa R. Audet, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is on faculty in the Speech Pathology & Audiology Department at Kent State University. She is a former provost faculty associate in the Division of Diversity Equity and Inclusion at Kent State. Dr. Audet developed the Autism Initiative for Research Education and Outreach and co-coordinates the Autism Minor and Graduate Certificate at KSU. She has over 35 years of experience as a therapist, teacher, and researcher.