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Program helps students with autism transition into college

Columbus State Community College (CSCC) in Ohio has developed an orientation program to help students with autism transition into college classrooms.
The emphasis of the program—which is a joint project between the college and the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio (ESCCO)—is to help students with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (often known as very high function autism) assimilate into college. It grew from concerns that there were few options for students on the autism spectrum approaching high school graduation. 
The need for such a program, called Autism College Transition (ACT), was detected by Wayne Cocchi, director of disability services and counseling services at CSCC, who noticed an increase in behavioral-type issues with a few students diagnosed with autism.
“We have had as many as 30 autistic students on campus a year and several of them were having some social and behavioral challenges,” Cocchi said. “Some were warned for inappropriate behavior, some were causing classroom disruptions. Early results show ACT is having a positive impact on those issues and more.”
The ACT program is for students who have completed enough credits for high school graduation but haven’t received a diploma. (Ohio gives students an option to delay graduation for one year after they have accumulated enough credits.) Since the students don’t have a diploma yet, they qualify for continuous funding through their public school districts. All costs of ACT are covered for three transitional quarters of college. The students pay only for tuition and fees.
Five students were enrolled in ACT during the inaugural 2008-2009 academic year and four the following year. The goal is to expand to 10 students annually in coming years. 
“Some colleges have similar programs but not geared specifically for high school students to take college-level classes on a campus,” Cocchi said.
ACT begins with an intensive seven-day orientation before the start of fall classes. Known as “bridge week,” it focuses on student independence, social competency and future planning. Matthew Wilson, who is with ESCCO, is the point person coordinating the program. His office is on the CSCC campus so that he can have regular contact with the students.
Wilson serves as a kind of life coach, meeting with each student one-on-one for a minimum of one hour a week.  He helps them with time management, organizational skills and locating resources, such as tutorial labs on campus. 
Once a week, the students meet as a group where the subjects center more on social skills. Topics include dating, friendship and anger.
Wilson’s background includes educational counseling with students in primary schools.
“In the past, I worked with autistic children in middle school, and after they would move into high school I always wondered what would happen to them,” Wilson said. “There were few, if any, programs to take them on a path toward higher education. Now that autism awareness has grown nationally, it’s more than time for those students to have help to succeed beyond high school.”
Community colleges may be the best places for them to do so.
“Community college campuses make the process easier,” Cocchi said. “Socially, the students are not dropped off in a dorm. They’re still living at home and have that degree of comfort and safety. After spending a couple of years taking classes at the community college, the transition to a four-year school won’t be so dramatic.”
That comfort level has helped ACT students, such as Tyler Hall, who plans to transfer to Ohio State University.
“Columbus State is relatively small, and with ACT, I have been able to find my way around,” Hall said. “When I have a bad day, I can go home with it instead of back to a residence hall with all that craziness. Meeting with Mr. Wilson helps me keep from freaking out over, say a bad test. I can stop in and talk it over and work out a plan.”
Tracking results over several years will help determine the most successful parts of ACT.  Course completion rates, retention and grade point averages are being monitored. Student-instructor interaction is one social skill that is being targeted and taught in the early stages of ACT in an effort to improve grades and course completion.
The program will address other autism-specific challenges and deficits in the next cohort. One goal of the collaborating partners is to make the program available for other colleges to replicate.