Teaching Social Skills and Academic Strategies to College Students with Asperger's Syndrome

Article excerpt

Asperger's syndrome (AS) was recognized in 1944 by an Austrian pediatrician named Hans Asperger. Asperger believed that autism could differ in severity bringing to light the notion that autism is a spectrum disorder. In his work with patients, he noticed that some had good verbal ability but appeared to have autism in a milder form (Frith, 2004). Although the designation of AS began in 1944, the diagnosis was not a part of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV) until 1994. According to the DSM-IV. characteristics oí AS typically include "(a) qualitative impairment in social interaction, (b) restrictive repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior interests and activities, and (c) clinically significant impairment in social, occupation or other important areas of functioning" (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 84). Since the development of the diagnostic category in 1994, there has been a rise in the number of students diagnosed with AS. In a study conducted in 2007 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the United States is approximately 1 in 150 people. An increase has also been seen in the number of students with AS attending postsecondary education institutions. Smith's (2007) findings show that the increase of students with AS attending colleges and universities is significant. Twenty years ago college was not an option for these students; however, more and more students with AS today identify college as their number one option (Graetz & Spampinato, 2008).

Because of the rise in numbers of students with AS, there is a push for colleges and universities to address the unique needs of this population. Unfortunately, not all schools have the funding to provide the level of support the students need (Dillon, 2007). This past year at the University of Connecticut, the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD) has developed a first year experience course specifically for students diagnosed with AS. The course is designed to meet once a week and utilizes the curriculum of a typical first year seminar, but it includes crucial information around social skills and how to adapt to a new schedule and environment, which we know to be troublesome and anxiety provoking for this population.

From the students' perspective, the class affords them the opportunity to take a first-year seminar class similar to their peers and earn a class credit toward graduation. The course also offers them the opportunity to interact with other classmates who have similar challenges and provides them with essential skills and strategies to make their transition to the college community more seamless. From the perspective of a disability services office, the class is an effective way to engage with several students at once without putting a strain on resources. By having CSD staff members teach the course, students are taught by familiar instructors who have an understanding of how to work with this population.

Structure of the Course

Establishing a partnership with the First Year Programs Office (which coordinates all of the one credit seminars on campus) was not only a natural step in the process, but also allowed us to control the enrollment for our course while maintaining student's confidentiality. Because we did not want to label the class in the course catalog as being a section specifically for students with AS, we worked with the First Year Programs Office to have a closed section of the class so that only specific students could sign up for it. We discussed the course when we met with students with AS and their families. A permission number to access the course was provided to any student who expressed interest in attending the class.

In an effort to create a course that provides both useful information for university living and serves as a support system for these students, we hold the class in the conference room of the CSD. …