Ellen Rosenthal and Rebecca Hansen, M.A.
The ability to be more confident and prepared for life in a college setting is an invaluable part of transitioning into higher education. This transition can make or break how students feel about life after college and set the stage for their academic future. While many high school juniors are simply visiting colleges throughout the summertime, others decide to experience college firsthand by living on campus and enrolling in a course. The flexibility that summer session offers on campuses can provide more opportunities for social development as well as individualized attention from faculty and staff. Such a setting is optimal for students on the autism spectrum to explore and learn how to manage their newfound freedom and to find comfort in developing a routine that best fits individualized needs.
Discovering how to balance all of the aspects of a college lifestyle while developing the independent living skills necessary to safely reside on a college campus can be challenging for any student; however, the transition is compounded when difficulties in executive functioning and social skills come into play. The College Program for Students with Asperger’s Syndrome at Marshall University, located in Huntington, West Virginia, recognizes how overwhelming jumping into a college environment without prior preparation can be for a student on the autism spectrum. This led us, in 2007, to develop a support program specifically for rising high school seniors to complement our existing program for undergraduates and graduate students first initiated in 2002. In many respects, creating the summer experience program mirrored how the College Program itself was first inducted – by family efforts. Knowing that the transition into higher education might be difficult for their son on the autism spectrum, a family contacted the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University and asked if their son could visit the college and experience firsthand what it was like to attend with the proper supports in place. With time, the summer transition program services became more refined with the addition of community based activities and social skill development groups. Today, for five weeks, students involved in the summer support program live in the dormitories, eat in the cafeteria, take one college level course, and participate in social skill development groups and activities.
Ellen, co-author of this article, summarizes her first experience in the program:
Imagine you are about to give a speech and everyone in the audience has a face that is literally blank: no eyes, nose, or mouth. It’s impossible to tell what they’re thinking, but you can feel them watching you, judging you. You want to sink into the floor and disappear; you’re afraid to make a single mistake for fear that they’ll reject you. You feel scared, awkward, and trapped. You stutter, scared stiff and frozen to the spot, while trying to seem “animated.” This may seem like something out of a horror film, but for me, this is my life with Asperger syndrome.
In the summer of 2010, I attended a summer support program offered through The West Virginia Autism Training Center’s College Program for Students with Asperger’s Syndrome at Marshall University. I have severe social anxiety when speaking in front of crowds so I decided to confront my fears and take a public speaking class. The actual act of public speaking is the hardest thing for me in a classroom setting because I can see everyone’s faces and know that they’re judging me. Although peer review is a critical component of the course, I’m constantly worried about whether or not I’m boring or confusing my classmates. Regardless whether someone says, “Don’t worry about what other people think about you,” I do, because I know that I’ll see them again for the next few weeks and have to endure it if they laugh at me or mock me. While I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I now enjoy public speaking, it became more tolerable with practice. I found that people weren’t as harsh critics as I once thought. The professor was kind and understanding of my issues, and I ended up with a B in the class! In my day-to-day life, I found that creating a routine and sticking to it helped lessen my anxiety. For example, the dining hall and recreation center had regular hours, so I could easily build a schedule around times to eat and work out. I filed any handouts and lecture notes in the accordion file section of my binder and used color-coded notebooks to stay organized. My syllabus told me the dates for exams and when homework assignments were due, so I didn’t have any unpleasant surprises. Contrary to popular belief, between walking around campus, eating salads at the dining hall, and working out at the rec center, I actually ended up losing weight!
I soon became accustomed to the social scene at college and even grew to love it, something that had never happened to me before. Because of this experience, I now feel that the stereotypes about college life aren’t always true. Unlike high school where there are cliques of people who can be mean and treat you like less of a person, college students accept you for who you are. Now, I’m accepted. I met people easily through the summer program, and am sure others can get to know people with similar interests in the numerous clubs offered on campus. My advice for any potential college student is to not be afraid to branch out a little; get involved in something that you normally wouldn’t. That’s how people grow, and meet other people. Above all else, don’t be afraid to have fun!
Ellen Rosenthal is a freshman attending Marshall University. She is an honors student planning on pursuing a B.A. in Psychology. Her experience transitioning into higher education through the summer support program for high school students with Asperger’s Syndrome shaped her decision to attend Marshall. Ellen enjoys swimming, reading, and making jewelry. One of her favorite things to do is explore the outdoors!
Rebecca Hansen is the Coordinator for the College Program for Students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Her educational background is in student affairs counseling and she is currently pursuing her Doctorate of Education in Leadership Studies at Marshall University. She has worked with the West Virginia Autism Training Center for more than seven years. Rebecca specializes in using a positive behavioral support approach to serving college students with Asperger’s Syndrome.