By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Adapting to university life can be challenging for all students.
It’s especially challenging for students on the Autism Spectrum, who are expected to handle new and difficult situations without the special support they have known in elementary, middle and high school.
A ten-page syllabus or a high-pressure testing environment are hard for everyone, but for an autistic student, they can unleash a panic attack or other emotional crisis.
As colleges across the country welcome increasing numbers of autistic students, they are striving to develop programs to give these students the help they need both in succeeding academically and in navigating many non-academic aspects of college, such as interpersonal skills, executive functioning and anxiety.
Now the IU Southeast Personal Counseling Services office is launching a weekly therapy support group for students on the Autism Spectrum: the Autism Lunch Bunch.
This group is an opportunity for students on the spectrum to meet one another and address some of their common challenges at IU Southeast.
Topics include both social and academic skills, as well as managing group work, time and stress.
Students wishing to take part do not need to have an official diagnosis or be registered with Disability Services. In fact, the group is open to any student who self-identifies as having Autism/Asperger’s Disorder.
This is important, according to Dr. Michael Day, director of Personal Counseling.
“While many autistic students arrive with diagnoses and a history of support, as many as 60% of students on the spectrum do not disclose their condition, and many do not know they are autistic until they encounter situations they do not know how to handle,” Day said.
Without some kind of awareness and support, students on the spectrum are more likely to drop out of school, according to Day.
The Lunch Bunch idea grew out of conversations between Day and Anita Kraft, who is working towards her graduate degrees in the Mental Health Counseling and Interdisciplinary Studies programs. The discussion expanded to include Matt Springer, coordinator of Disability Services and Kathryn Ryan, senior lecturer in special education, who provided useful insights from their areas.
The colleagues brainstormed a broad effort that may one day include faculty training and a dedicated autistic student organization. The support group emerged as a good place to start.
“My career goal is to eventually work with college students on the spectrum, developing programs that provide whatever help they need to graduate,” Kraft said. “This is a good first step towards making IU Southeast more autism-friendly.”
Kraft and Day see the Lunch Bunch program as the beginnings of an effort that can not only identify IU Southeast as a welcoming institution for students with these kinds of special needs, but can also transform the culture of the campus.
“Individuals on the Autism Spectrum have a lot to offer, with their specific intellectual and academic interests, but they can also help us, as a community, become more understanding of the diversity that exists in the world as a whole,” Day said. “If they have a truly supportive environment, they’ll be more likely to succeed here and in the workforce, and we, in turn, can learn to become better supervisors or supervisees.”
The Autism Lunch Bunch will meet every Tuesday, from Jan. 22 to April 9, from 12-1 p.m., in University Center North, Room 126. To register, call the Personal Counseling Center, 812-941-2244 or email Dr. Michael Day at firstname.lastname@example.org or Anita Kraft at email@example.com.
Homepage photo: Anita Kraft and Dr. Michael Day in the Office of Personal Counseling Services