Despite the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensuring every learner with a disability a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) and The No Child Left Behind Act holding schools accountable for their students’ academic achievement based on how they learn (The National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014), postsecondary readiness has continued to decline impacting a wide breathe of learners socially, emotionally, and academically (Adelman, 2004; Conley, 2010; Gothberg et al., 2015). As such, many school districts across America are struggling to accommodate the educational needs of their students including those with a well-documented psychosocial, somatic, and learning difference.
In an attempt to enrich a student’s first year experience, postsecondary institutions are taking the necessary steps towards addressing college readiness. Many are utilizing empirically-based strategies to appeal to a much broader and more diversified student body (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Such offerings include Title IX and Disabilities coordinators, academic support centers, student affairs, foundation level courses including adulting, and increased access to on-campus mental health clinicians to address the growing psychosocial concerns challenging young adults. Students with an existing Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan are encouraged to contact their university’s respective disabilities coordinator to ensure they receive all necessary accommodations. However, colleges will not reduce or modify the academic rigor required of every learner. Moreorever, unlike their formative years in which students were reliant on their parents to serve as their primary advocate, decision-maker, organizer, and laisse, post-secondary institutions typically discourage parents from stepping in and acting on their child’s behalf (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014).
ASD and the Postsecondary Transition Advantage
Students on the autism spectrum are often challenged with acute anxiety, emotionality, depression, and co-occurring and related disorders. Sometimes these symptoms can go untreated or require routine support (Roux et al., 2015; Capriola-Hall et al., 2021). Moreover, many students with ASD struggle to harness their emotionality, pivot to unexpected changes, disclose their disability, and advocate for what they truly need (Anderson et al., 2018; Elias & White, 2018; Jackson et al., 2018; Capriola-Hall et al., 2021). Not only does research suggest students with ASD require psychosocial supports that align with their unique and variant profile (Van Hees et al., 2015), with the right support including access to transition coordinators, special educators, social workers, board-certified behavior analysts, community coaches, and peer mentors who are well-educated and experienced working with spectrum related disorders, these same students can demonstrate improved scholastic performance, emotional regulation, critical thinking, problem-solving, self-efficacy, independence, and psychosocial well-being (Mayhew et al., 2016; Hendrickson & colleagues, 2017). As such, many school districts are approving students who have an IEP and an established transition plan in place to participate in dual enrollment transition programs (Gaumer, Morningstar, & Clark, 2004; Grigal & Hart, 2010; Hart et al., 2004; Gigal et al., 2012).
Dual enrollment, a.k.a., concurrent enrollment, or pathways program invites those students who remain eligible for special education services to refrain from accepting their high school diploma and instead, opt to attain their social, emotional, and independent living goals while earning their high school and college credits. Postsecondary transition programs are highly specialized instructional packages typically supported by three distinct pillars: academics, vocation and employment, and community/independent living. Each pillar is individualized to meet the needs of each student via their precise stage of developmental readiness (Hart, Grigal, & Weir, 2010; Neubert & Redd, 2008; Hendrickson et al., 2017). In fact, many transition programs offer students an opportunity to earn college credit(s) that can be transferred to another academic institution of their choosing.
What sets postsecondary transition programs apart is their provision of well-specialized networks of support on a rich and diversified college campus essential for promoting skill acquisition and generalization. Many students on the spectrum have led restrictive and insular lives. Unlike their neurotypical peers who gained much of their knowledge through peer engagement in naturalistic settings, students on the spectrum were oftentimes socially excluded due to their needs and eccentricities. Thus, there is no guarantee that the skills learned in previous settings can be organically applied and generalized across a range of individuals, environments, and circumstances.
“Hello, my name is Carly. I am currently a student enrolled in a transition program. I love to draw, I am extremely artistic, and I hope to use my talents in computer science so I can help make video games. Before I came to college, I overcame a lot of challenges involving Autism. During my elementary, middle, and high school years I had difficulties that might relate to Autism. Elementary school was challenging for me. I had trouble expressing myself, my temper, and I had a hard time reading. I would often cry, get loud and yell at people and that was not the best way to deal with it.
During my time in middle school, I worked on improving my reading skills. But I started to realize I had anxiety issues. I started doing things to improve my reading skills like reading for someone and doing activities online. It was a little challenging when doing online activities and I had trouble at times, but it later proved to be worth it. I got my black belt in karate and I was recognized as being Gifted in art class. However, something I didn’t like kept happening. My anxiety was often overwhelming me in class. This made it difficult to get work done at times. Despite my issues, I started to learn more about myself.
When I was in high school, my anxiety increased. As I went through my high school years, I got better at reading but my anxiety took a turn for the worse. I tried taking medicine to help me control it, but one type made me even more stressed out. It took a long time to find the right medicine to help me. My classes were getting more difficult, my stress increased, and my social interactions started getting worse. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I became aware that I had something called Autism. I have been going to see the school psychologist not just to learn more about Autism, but to find ways on how to control my emotions.”
By nature of their autism, many will encounter fewer opportunities for social engagement, postsecondary academics, and vocational advancement. Many were educated in smaller and more specialized classrooms that typically reduced, if not removed the aversive and/or demands that fueled their frustration. Consequently, few students were reintroduced to these same stressors and triggers that elicited their emotionality. Perhaps the most compelling offering that a postsecondary transition program can provide is helping a student learn to manage their emotions, sit in the uncomfortable, and accept the unpleasant. All while learning to independently navigate their schedule and manage their course work, submission dates, and work experiences. Conversely, postsecondary transition teams will work with campus staff and faculty to provide them with understanding, teaching strategies, reassurance, and encouragement.
“My time in high school, middle school, and elementary school may have been challenging, but I got through despite the obstacles. I really need to work on controlling my temper and my emotions. I take special medicines now to help me to keep my emotions under control. I also have plenty of people to talk to about Autism. I also have my parents to turn to for advice about this sort of thing. I am hoping that if I can know more about Autism, I can use that to my advantage. I have learned an important lesson from this: having Autism can’t define who you are, it is just part of who you are. I am hoping to learn more about this disorder so I can handle my emotions better. Right now, I am doing my best to work on my issues. One day I will be able to handle tricky emotions on my own, but until I can, I need to work with folks like Kara and Laura to help me manage. However, I recently learned that there are good things that can come out of having Autism. Like being able to see things differently. I’m sure I will succeed in life, but for now, I just have to keep on learning so I can get closer to achieving my goals.”
As a program chair for a postsecondary transition program, our team has recognized several crucial attributes that foster student success. These hallmarks include motivation, self-determination, self-advocacy, self-awareness, and the ability to disclose. Transition programs are not only crucial for learners with a documented disability, they are pivotal for enhancing their overall life trajectory as self-determined, accountable, and future-thinking adults (Hendrickson et al., 2017).
Laura J. Albee, DSW, LCSW, BCBA, LBA, is the Program Chair for the Post University Pathways Program. She is a parttime faculty instructor at Southern Connecticut State University’s (SCSU) Department of Social Work. Carly Savanna Hodorski is a University Pathways Student at Post University.
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