When I got an invitation to see my friend Jordan graduate with a BS in Computer Science from Kennesaw State University, I was ecstatic. Jordan and I first got to know each other because we shared a common interest: advocating for inclusive education.
Jordan, who is autistic, was included with his typically developing peers throughout his K-12 school career. Once he graduated from high school to college, he became interested in sharing his story with families and educators. So when my elementary school was looking for a speaker for our staff during Exceptional Children's Week, Jordan was a natural fit.
After this initial introduction, I invited him to participate in a video project in my classroom, where he would record one of my students with significant cognitive disabilities as he was included in a general education classroom. Jordan is a whiz with video editing!
While Jordan has many strengths, going to college wasn't a walk in the park. It took a great deal of effort and support from his parents (he lived at home and drove his car to and from the university), as well as Kennesaw State, to create an environment for Jordan to succeed. Along with the support of enrolling Jordan in classes, the university connected him with the campus psychologist, psychiatrist, dietician, personal trainer, and social skills support group.
I asked Jordan what he thought was necessary support that he received at Kennesaw State that he couldn't have lived without. He mentioned Kennesaw State's Student Disability Services, where Jordan took all of his tests instead of taking them in class with everyone else. Among some of the other accommodations that the university offers its students are alternative textbooks, peer note-takers, interpreters or real-time captioning, alternative test scheduling, and relaxed attendance to classes. While Jordan didn't receive all of these accommodations, the ones he did use were made available to him because he provided the university a consent document letting them know he had a disability.
Of course, accommodations are not the only ways that universities can support autistic college students. Take, for instance, these suggestions from the Center for Development and Disability at the University of New Mexico on how teaching staff and special services can address areas of concern.
Something else to consider is what kind of support is available for students who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), a term that describes communication strategies that people use when speech is impossible or insufficient. A 2013 study estimated that approximately 1.3 percent of people (about 4 million Americans) are unable to communicate using natural speech to accomplish daily communication needs.
So how do you support autistic students who have communication needs? Alyssa, an autistic graduate student who uses AAC, gives the following suggestions:
For Jordan and Alyssa, their college victories were won with the support of their families, friends, and universities.
After listening to their needs, see if you can accommodate them, even if it isn't an "official" accommodation. You may be surprised and delighted at what an autistic student can bring to your class or campus.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org