Teens with mild autism get early help to deal with stresses of college
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Sixteen-year-old Nick Goga isn't anxious about going to college anymore, thanks to a summer program at Robert Morris University.
"I think I can really survive college now," he said.
Nick, of Whitehall, a junior at Baldwin-Whitehall High School, is participating in ACCLAIM, a summer program designed for students with Asperger's disorder and high-functioning autism. Asperger's disorder is at the milder end of the autistic spectrum disorder and affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively.
ACCLAIM -- or Autism College and Community Life Acclimation and Intervention Model -- was founded in 2008 by the Watson Institute, an organization that focuses on educating children with special needs. The program, formerly located at the University of Pittsburgh, is being held this summer at Robert Morris, Community College of Allegheny County and Mercyhurst College in Erie.
The goal of ACCLAIM is to prepare students with autistic spectrum disorders for the transition to college life. The program also aims to relieve anxiety about college, as it did for Nick.
ACCLAIM focuses on seven areas: social interaction, communication, executive functioning, daily living, emotional regulation, college and community acclimation, and job and career preparation. Because the students' disabilities are more social than intellectual, "the academic component is not a barrier to success for these students," said Lori Zychowski, supervising psychologist and curriculum designer for ACCLAIM.
Issues that these students do struggle with include meeting new people and adjusting to a new environment.
Nicole Jarock, ACCLAIM coordinator, said the program is a mix of classroom learning and hands-on experiences. Students typically go over one or two lessons each day, take exams, participate in discussions and complete worksheets. Topics include applying to college, using resources at college, managing money, handling stress and dealing with peers in a new social setting.
"Most of the learning happens through experiencing," Dr. Zychowski said. Experiences include campus tours, scavenger hunts and the responsibility of managing a daily lunch stipend.
David West, of Robinson, a senior at Montour High School, said going into the "real world" has helped him.
"It helps me manage my money very well. It helps us to interact with people we don't know," he said.
The students range in age from 16 to 19 years old and include high school sophomores, juniors, seniors and recent graduates.
This year, for the first time, 10 students are participating in a three-week-long overnight program at Mercyhurst for those who are considering attending college away from home.
At Robert Morris and CCAC, the daily program runs Monday to Friday for four weeks. Nine students are participating at CCAC, and seven at Robert Morris. The students don't necessarily choose to apply to the college they visit; the schools serve as close-to-home host schools, Ms. Jarock said.
Dr. Zychowski, who has been with ACCLAIM since it started, said the program has been successful. "Anecdotally, we hear about former participants. A couple have enrolled in college and are doing well," she said.
First Published July 3, 2010 12:00 am