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Post-secondary Transition Planning for Students with Asperger Syndrome
Post-Secondary Transition Planning for Students with Asperger Syndrome
Scott Meshnick and Feyza Aktas
Introduction to Asperger Syndrome
Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a neurobiological condition classified as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are five disorders that make up the autism spectrum, including Asperger Syndrome,
Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Autistic Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified
. Asperger Syndrome falls on the high functioning end of the spectrum.
There is no cure for Asperger Syndrome, although certain therapies and behavioral support interventions have been shown to bring about improvements in functioning over time.
Asperger Syndrome causes significant problems in socialization, communication, thinking and behavior, which can interfere with the ability to perform certain tasks (Ashley, 2007). One of the most significant characteristics of Asperger Syndrome is the lack of social skills. People with Asperger Syndrome frequently have difficulty interacting with others and often tend to display eccentric behaviors. Some scientists believe the cause of these struggles is that individuals with Asperger Syndrome and autism spectrum disorders are deficient in the concept of “theory of mind” – the ability to appropriately assign and interpret the thoughts and feelings of people around them.
Individuals with Asperger Syndrome frequently possess above average to superior intelligence. Many also possess specific and intense interests that, when allowed to pursue in an educational setting, can often lead to success in college.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM IV) (
) defines Asperger Syndrome as consisting of the following characteristics:
(I) “Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:
(A) Marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction
(B) Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
(C) A lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interest or achievements with other people, (e.g.. by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
(D) Lack of social or emotional reciprocity
(II) Restricted repetitive & stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:
(A) Encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus
(B) Apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
(C) Stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g. hand or finger flapping or twisting,or complex whole-body movements)
(D) Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
(III) The disturbance causes clinically significant impairments in social, occupational, orother important areas of functioning.
(IV) There is no clinically significant general delay in language (E.G. single words used by age 2 years, communicative phrases used by age 3 years)
(V) There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction) and curiosity about the environment in childhood.
(VI) Criteria are not met for another specific Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Schizophrenia”
The symptoms of Asperger Syndrome vary among individuals and it can be generally said that no two individuals with Asperger Syndrome are exactly alike. The severity of the disorder also varies among individuals, ranging anywhere from mild to severe. Many individuals with Asperger Syndrome often have certain coexisting conditions
such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Anxiety Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder or depression, which can complicate attempts for support and intervention. However, despite these additional diagnoses, many students with Asperger Syndrome are successful at post-secondary institutions and go on to have successful careers.
In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner, a child psychologist from John Hopkins University, was the first to identify autism. Dr. Kanner observed
“11 children who showed little interest in other people, insisted on routines, and displayed unusual body movements, like flapping their hands. Many of the children could talk … however they rarely used their speech to communicate with others. The children had a variety of learning problems in addition to their unusual behaviors” (Ozonoff et ai., 2002, p. 5).
One year later, Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, identified four children as having significant impairment in nonverbal communication skills, and who failed to demonstrate empathy with their peers. Asperger also described these children as being physically clumsy, and they often spoke about a single, all-encompassing topic of interest that dominated their conversations with others.
) He also noted that these children spoke in an overly formal or disjointed manner.
Dr. Hans Asperger working with a child
Dr. Asperger called the condition “autistic psychopathy” and described the disorder as marked by social isolation (NINDS, 2011). Asperger published a work on his findings in German during World War II, but it was not widely read until 1981, when Dr. Lorna Wing published her own series of behavioral findings on the disorder in similar children. She called the condition “Asperger Syndrome,” thereby giving Dr. Asperger credit for originally discovering the disorder.
After Wing’s case studies were published, Asperger Syndrome became widely recognized in medical circles. It was added to the World Health Organization’s diagnostic manual, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) in 1992 and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) in 1994, after which it was accepted as an official diagnosis.
Since then there have been discussions as to whether Asperger Syndrome should be considered a separate diagnosis from high functioning autism. At the current time, the American Psychiatric Association is planning to remove Asperger Syndrome from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders because research has indicated Asperger Syndrome is not a distinct diagnosis, but rather a part of the overall autism spectrum. (
) The current plan is to merge the diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome with “Autistic Disorder (Autism Spectrum Disorder)." (
Statistics on Asperger Syndrome
As of 2007 it was estimated that about 1 in 150 children in the United States had an autism spectrum disorder (
). Because the American Psychiatric Association only recognized Asperger Syndrome in 1994, the number of people with the disorder worldwide is unknown, but current research estimates that it affects roughly 0.024% to 0.36% of children. (
Due to more effective early intervention and treatment methods, the number of students with Asperger Syndrome attending college is on the rise. A 2006 survey of 42 colleges in the U.S. found an average of 4.28 students with AS at four-year universities and 8.9 students at community or technical colleges (Wolf et al., 2009). Many colleges and universities need to be better prepared to offer academic accommodations to these incoming students.
Transition Planning for Students with Asperger Syndrome
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights statute that requires
colleges, universities, businesses, public transportation services, state and local government programs and services to provide equal access to persons with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination and mandates that Americans with disabilities be accorded equality in pursuing jobs, goods, services, and other opportunities. (
Individuals with Asperger Syndrome who choose to attend institutions of higher education in the United States are protected from discrimination under the ADA. The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity” (United States Department of Justice, 2005). Colleges and universities receiving any form of federal funding are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities. Students are required to prove their disability to the college or university in question as well as prove that they meet all other admissions requirements the college or university has set in place.
The goal of transition planning for a student with a disability is to attempt to ensure that the student experiences a successful transition from high school to college. The role of the student in advocating for his or herself is significantly increased upon reaching adulthood. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that the process of transition planning for students with disabilities begin at age 16. At this time, parents and educators must develop a set of specific and measurable transition goals for the student to attain upon graduation. They are also required to develop a “Summary of Performance” – a series of academic and functional performance recommendations for the student in post-secondary environments.
However, students with high functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome typically do not meet the criteria for receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Instead they meet the criteria of having a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This is because Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act defines a disability in broader terms than the IDEA. Both acts require that school districts provide a free and appropriate education to every person with a disability, regardless of its nature or severity (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).
Once students reach adulthood, the responsibility of advocating for equal access to societal institutions is turned over to them. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act deals with minors. Upon turning 18 years of age,
the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are the primary pieces of legislation responsible for ensuring equal access to societal institutions for individuals with disabilities. Students over this age are responsible for identifying, advocating, and pursuing services for themselves at the college level. This can have certain important implications for students with Asperger Syndrome if the proper transition planning does not take place.
Issues in Transition Planning
Some of the issues facing students with Asperger Syndrome transitioning to college include deciding what type and size college to attend, figuring out necessary living accommodations, acquiring independent living skills, knowing how to disclose their disability to professors, self-advocacy, identifying the appropriate academic and social accommodations, navigating the college environment, and developing strategies to adjust to the college environment.
Choosing the Right College
When locating a school for someone with Asperger Syndrome, several considerations should be taken into account, including the size and type of college to attend, as well as whether it should be a
vocational school, a technical school, a community college, or a 4-year university.
There are several reasons why individuals with Asperger Syndrome should consider a community college rather than a 4-year institution. Community colleges offer more individual attention to students due to smaller class and campus sizes (Perner, 2002). Many students with Asperger Syndrome often have trouble navigating large university campuses. They may find that smaller campuses are easier to navigate and less overwhelming overall (Harper, Lawlor, & Fitzgerald, 2004; Moreno, 2005; Willey, 2000; Williams & Palmer, 2004).
However, there are negatives to attending community college. It may require an additional transition to another institution to obtain a 4-year degree placing more stress on the student. In addition, some students with Asperger Syndrome have stated they prefer larger universities since smaller campuses and class sizes increase the chances of being visibility different to others (Perner, 2003). Large schools offer a more diverse array of students and increase the likelihood of meeting people with similar interests (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).
Technical schools typically allow students to take a greater number of courses in a particular area of interest. This can be very beneficial to students with Asperger Syndrome, who sometimes struggle in the general education courses typically offered at large 4-year schools due to preoccupation with their particular interests.
Many students with Asperger Syndrome can have difficulty adjusting to living arrangements in the college environment or may have difficulty living with a roommate. In these cases, the living options that individual institutions offer and the proximity of the school to the student’s hometown should be taken into consideration (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).
Independent Living Skills
Common daily living issues that individuals with Asperger Syndrome may have difficulty with include attending to personal hygiene (Adreon, 2004; Prince-Hughes, 2002), dressing (Moreno, 2005), waking up to an alarm clock (Adreon, 2004; Williams & Palmer, 2004), getting to class on time (Adreon, 2004), shopping (Prince- Hughes, 2004), understanding meal plans, using a campus ID, fire drills, finding restrooms, and using public transportation (Williams & Palmer, 2004). For individuals who struggle with these issues, living at home during college may be preferable.
Problem solving and decision making vary among people with autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger Syndrome. Adreon (2004) and Coulter (2003) suggested that if students are going to live away from home, parents should post a list of information in the student’s room or create a resource guide of useful information for the student to use. The guide should include safety guidelines, insurance information, phone numbers, bank account information, handling medical emergencies, accessing health care on campus, budgeting, shopping, (Coulter, 2003; Williams & Palmer, 2004), and other organizational aspects of daily living (Adreon, 2002, 2004b; Jekel & Loo, 2002; Prince- Hughes, 2002; Williams & Palmer, 2004).
Self-Advocacy is one of the most important issues when transitioning to college. The disclosure of one’s disability to post-secondary institutions is necessary in order for students to receive accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Students are responsible for advocating for themselves in college, meaning that they must initiate contact with the school’s disabilities office to disclose their disability. They also must approach professors in order to indicate whether they need certain accommodations in order to succeed in class.
Some students need coaching in these matters (Williams and Palmer, 2004). Students ideally should be trained to know how to disclose their disability while in high school, but some families go even further – they may hire a graduate student or a life coach that works with the student to speak with college instructors to explain what the disability is, what it consists of, and what if any accommodations will be needed (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).
Academic Supports and Accommodations
Many students with Asperger Syndrome need academic accommodations such as preferential seating (Williams & Palmer, 2004), note takers (Rosenwald & Hultgren, 2003; Moreno, 2005), tape-recorded lectures (Rosenwald & Hultgren, 2003; Willey, 2000), taking exams in quiet and less distracting environments (Prince-Hughes, 2002; Williams & Palmer, 2004), and extra time for exams (Prince-Hughes, 2002; Williams & Palmer, 2004).
Many other accommodations not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act may be recommended for students with Asperger Syndrome at post-secondary institutions, including assistance with course selection (Williams & Palmer, 2004), course substitutions or exemptions (Wheeler & Kalina, 2000; Willey, 2000), permission to “avoid group projects, group discussions, laboratory assignments and group seating arrangements” (Willey, 2000, p. 134), oral rather than written exams (Willey, 2000), flexibility in assignment due dates (Willey, 2000; Williams & Palmer, 2004), flexibility in scheduling classes (Wheeler & Kalina, 2000; Willey, 2000), and “permission to attend other sections of the same course” (Willey, 2000, p. 134).
Assistance in developing the necessary study and organizational skills (Myles, 2005; Myles & Adreon, 2001; Jekel & Loo, 2002), and providing assistance with long-term projects (Myles, 2005; Myles & Adreon, 2001; Moreno, 2005), may also be needed due to lack of
. Executive functioning is defined as the cognitive process that is necessary in order to carry out any goal-oriented behavior, such as self-monitoring, initiation and planning. Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders are known to have problems relating to executive functioning, and may need assistance carrying out assignments that require planning and problem solving. Having students with Asperger Syndrome keep a calendar of assignments may be the easiest methods to help them compensate for their lack of executive functioning and keep them on task (Adreon & Durocher, 2007).
Students with Asperger Syndrome run the risk of social isolation at college. One of the trademark characteristics of nearly all autism spectrum disorders is difficulty interacting with others. Some students have found it helpful having a liaison to talk to when they become stressed or confused (Myles & Adreon, 2001; Jekel & Loo, 2002; Rosenwald & Hultgren, 2003). The liaison can assist the student with daily problem solving, communications between the student and his or her parents, help with course selection, registration, and graduation requirements.
Using classmates as peer mentors has been known to help. Some parents who have hired shadows for their son or daughter with Asperger Syndrome during the transition to college have reported positive results (Rosenwald & Hultgren, 2003, p. 84). Others say that going to a safe or relaxing place when stressed can be beneficial (Willey, 2000).
Adjusting to the College Environment
Some strategies to help students with Asperger Syndrome adjust to the college environment include taking a college course while in high school (Schultz, 2011), taking a college summer course prior to the student’s first year of college (Jekel & Loo, 2002), taking a reduced course load (Jekel & Loo, 2002; Prince-Hughes, 2002; Williams & Palmer, 2004), and taking more time to complete college (Jekel & Loo, 2002; Perner, 2002).
Other strategies include scheduling classes for only one or two days a week during the first semester of college (Perner, 2002, p. 327) and only registering for classes that meet after the student’s normal wake up time (Willey, 2000). Some experts also recommend that students with Asperger Syndrome take the time to familiarize themselves with the campus surroundings before starting their first semester (Coulter, 2003; Harper et al., 2004; Willey, 2000), familiarizing themselves with their college’s website, and studying maps of the campus before they start taking classes
(Harper et al., 2004).
Differing Perspectives on Transition
A number of colleges are now offering transition programs for students with Asperger Syndrome and high functioning autism. Click here (
) for a list of post-secondary universities that offer specialized programs and support services for students with Asperger Syndrome.
Many programs take different approaches when providing transition supports. The Psychology Department at Keene State College in New Hampshire has created a program where peer mentors are hired on an hourly basis to provide social and problem solving support for students with Asperger Syndrome. The program is funded in part by The
Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation, which not only helped create the peer-mentoring program in 2002, but also helped fund several research projects related to Asperger Syndrome.
The Psychology Department arranges for peer mentors to receive credit for working in the program.
The Keene State program has mentors meet with new students with Asperger Syndrome on a weekly basis to discuss any problems or issues they might have. The meetings are designed to encourage interaction between the current student body and new students. They also enable students with Asperger Syndrome to ask questions, come up with new strategies to help adjust to their new environment, and practice new behaviors. Click here (
) to learn more about Keene State’s program.
New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) offers a summer program for incoming students with Asperger Syndrome. The program lasts 7 weeks and is exclusively for students with Asperger Syndrome who intend to study at NYIT in the fall. Students spend part of their day working for a stipend; the other part of their day is devoted to developing social and living skills. Click here (
) for more information on New York Institute of Technology’s “Introduction to Independence Program.”
Many experts differ in opinion regarding the most important issues relating to transition. Ernest VanBergeijk, the Executive Director of New York Institute of Technology’s “Introduction to Independence Program,” suggests that one of the biggest barriers for students with Asperger Syndrome and autism spectrum disorders is the stigma involved in disclosing their disability to others. VanBergeijk suggests that students with Asperger Syndrome often do not want to ask for help or accommodations because they feel embarrassed talking about their disability (Schultz, 2011). He also feels that the biggest challenge for students with Asperger Syndrome is decoding the social environment.
Louise Bedrossian wrote an article for
, the newsletter for the Disability Compliance for Higher Education (
), suggesting that the success of students with Asperger Syndrome depends on whether they can successfully adjust to campus life. Bedrossian believes that preplanning is the key to ensuring a successful transition. She believes that college students with Asperger Syndrome should keep a resource manual containing “telephone and address contact information for family, friends, and community services; maps and directions; survival rules and instructions; personal care routines; academic and campus policies; calendars; medical information; transportation information; and social and recreational opportunities” (Schultz, 2011).
Lori K. Schultz (2011), a graduate student at Bowling Green State University, conducted a survey that polled a panel of three experts in college transition for students with Asperger Syndrome, asking what they considered to be the most important practices for ensuring the success of students with Asperger Syndrome at institutions of higher education. You can read the results of her study here (
Areas of Future Study
The number of students with Asperger Syndrome choosing to continue their education is on the rise. Previous research listed a number of strategies to help ensure that these students successfully make the transition to higher education. However, individuals with Asperger Syndrome vary in their opinions regarding their particular college experiences. Potential areas for future research include conducting surveys and studies regarding the general effectiveness of transition programs implemented throughout the country. By gauging the effectiveness of these programs, colleges and universities will be better prepared to implement their own programs for what will surely be an increasing number of admitted students with Asperger Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders.
Schultz (2011) suggests that future research explore the differences between practitioners and academics regarding the perceptions and attitudes towards accommodating students with Asperger Syndrome, and how these potential differences may affect the implementation of any of the aforementioned practices. Schultz also recommends that future research explore the attitudes of professors and faculty members towards the education and accommodation of students with Asperger Syndrome, and how they might affect the implementation of the practices recommended by non-faculty experts.
What This Means for Teachers and Schools
Teachers need to let parents know there are varieties of resources to help children with Asperger Syndrome succeed in college. Educators should let families know their legal responsibilities and rights under federal legislation when making accommodations for children in school.
Parents should be made aware that prior to the student turning age 18, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are the primary pieces of legislation ensuring equal access to education and the granting of any accommodations for students diagnosed with disabilities.
It is the responsibility of the school and parents to identify and advocate for the child. At the age of 16, parents and educators of the student must develop a set of transition goals for the student to attain upon graduation, and a “Summary of Performance,” which is a list of academic and functional performance recommendations for the student in post-secondary environments.
Upon turning 18, educators should let students and families know that the responsibility for identifying and advocating for their children in college is transferred to the student. Students should be made aware of the various schools, programs and resources that are available to help ensure their successful transition to many institutions. Students should also take the time to familiarize themselves with the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure they know their legal rights and responsibilities. Students should meet with a transition coordinator from their campus disabilities office and review the process of identifying academic, social, or living accommodations.
This website has general information on Asperger Syndrome. It can be used as a resource for those who want to learn more about the disorder.
This site contains a list of post-secondary institutions that have transition programs for students with Asperger Syndrome. Dr. Jane Brown, the author of “The Parent’s Guide To College For Students On The Autism Spectrum”, runs it. You can read more about each school’s specific program by clicking the links that appear underneath the “
The University of Connecticut also has a special program to help students with Asperger Syndrome adjust to college called “SEAD,” which stands for “Strategic Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” You can read more about it here (
) and here (
Disability Compliance for Higher Education
is a newsletter that can help colleges avoid practices and policies that can cause harm to students with disabilities. You can read about it here (
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