After hosting a successful Higher Education Think Tank in November, the center will host a second conference in April to share best practices, research and data with institutions across Texas and the United States.
According to the College Autism Network, the number of graduating high school students with autism spectrum disorder continues to grow every year. By 2020, that number could be well over 400,000. In Texas, there are currently more than 60,000 students with autism in public schools.
“Over half of students with autism will attempt postsecondary education, meaning in the next 10 years, at least 30,000 students with autism in Texas alone will be looking for a place to study,” said Wesley Dotson, director of the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research at Texas Tech University. “There are only a small handful of programs for them.”
In the past five years, the Burkhart Center has assisted more than 40 students with autism attending Texas Tech and South Plains College through the Connections for Academic Success and Employment (CASE) program. CASE gives students the tools and support they need to successfully transition to college and obtain competitive employment after graduation. It is the only program in Texas designed explicitly for fully included, degree-seeking college students that is fully staffed and using an established model of support.
But what happens when students with autism arrive on a higher education campus and don't have the support they need to succeed?
Dotson said as one of the national leaders in designing programs like CASE, those at the Burkhart Center felt obligated to help create a space for others equally dedicated to this work to come together and learn from each other. In November, they did just that by hosting autism professionals from more than 20 institutions at their first Higher Education Think Tank conference. This April, due to popular demand, they'll host their second conference.
“When we held the first Think Tank last year, the participants were so excited, they wanted us to hold another one this semester,” Dotson said. “I can't think of a more powerful endorsement.”
Identifying a need
Regardless of the institution or its location, every college and university has to provide basic disability services to its students, said DeAnn Lechtenberger, CASE program director and director of technical assistance and community outreach at the Burkhart Center.
“Typically that is just to identify what accommodations they need in the classroom because in order to get a college degree, students with disabilities are required to do the exact same work any student would do,” Lechtenberger said. “Students with autism fully understand they are expected to do so, but that's really different from high school where they are allowed to have modifications to the curriculum, which is not allowed in college.”
Lechtenberger said the Burkhart Center gets calls from parents all over Texas and the U.S. who are seeking autism support programs at institutions closer to their homes. In searching for colleges and universities that offer comprehensive programs like CASE, Lechtenberger said she and Dotson found they are few and far between.
“What we found is that a lot were what we call ‘clinical services,'” Lechtenberger said. “These are important and necessary for families as well, but they aren't really geared toward getting someone through college.”
Lechtenberger said when dealing with students with autism, the issues tend to be less about being unable to do the work and more about their interactions with their peers and professors.
“A lot of times those students can do all the academic work, but because of their challenges in areas of communication and social skills, they sometimes are misconstrued as being arrogant or evasive or not wanting to follow the rules,” Lechtenberger said. “But in reality, they don't really understand what's being shared or what's being demanded of them. Many times, it is very literal things that trip up students who are otherwise very, very capable and very bright.”
Another problem institutions face when supporting these students is that they do not always self-identify as having autism.
“Colleges have students on their campuses who are on the autism spectrum or perhaps have characteristics of people with autism but have never been formally diagnosed,” Lechtenberger said. “A lot of times, they may not identify themselves, and if you want to access disability services on campus, you have to self-identify. A lot of these students, because they are so bright and have high test scores and high GPAs, won't often identify, but when they start having a problem, it can manifest itself into a crisis.”
At Texas Tech, the CASE program is structured specifically to avoid allowing a crisis to develop. Students are assessed to determine the best individualized support network, which includes being paired with a learning specialist. Learning specialists provide mentoring and navigational support by creating personalized plans that not only identify each student's needs, but also build skills for independent living, social connections and employment.
After Lechtenberger and Dotson shared information about the Burkhart Center and CASE at a higher education summit in Vermont last year, they returned to Texas intent on sharing that same information with institutions closer to home. The plan was to create an event where attendees could discuss successful strategies, challenges and research related to the support of college students with autism and related learning differences, and then take that information back to their own institutions to improve their own programs.
Cue the Think Tank.
Leading the change
Once they returned to Texas Tech, Lechtenberger and Dotson were able to work quickly to organize the Think Tank.
“We put our conference together in about four months,” Lechtenberger said. “We expected it to be pretty small to start with. We were really pushing for Texas colleges and universities, because really, what we're dedicated to doing at the Burkhart Center is trying to get more and more colleges in Texas to do this.”
Lechtenberger said of the programs represented by attendees in November, most were from community colleges and satellite campuses of Texas A&M University and the University of Texas. Out-of-state participants from Pennsylvania and Arizona also attended the conference.
The conference allowed attendees to discuss their own programs while also learning about the work the Burkhart Center does.
“Most of our program was centered on sharing what Texas Tech is doing,” Lechtenberger said. “Then we identified questions we thought people would ask based on our experience in Vermont and some of the questions we're asked when we go to conferences and share about the program.”
Questions included how to fund a program like CASE, how to hire staff and the types of support students most needed or requested.
"Our learning specialists, Rachel Harmon, Taylor Brooks and Traci Ysasaga, had a breakout session where people could come sit with them to find out what a day in the life of a learning specialist was like. It helped people understand what they really do, because a job description doesn't really tell everything," Lechtenberger said. "Our grant manager, Kelly Golden, talked about how we administrated the program within a college system, how that could work and what was the best approach to working with the business side of the university."
Attendees also learned how the Burkhart Center handles assessments and evaluations, and the importance of collecting data to determine how their work is actually making a difference in the lives of their students.
“We really wanted to make sure they have the information of what a student in crisis looks like and how we approach that, how we engage students in being willing to self-identify and how we coordinate with the current services on campus,” Lechtenberger said. “We don't expect them to replicate us exactly, but we hope they take this knowledge back, see what their institution needs to supplement what is already provided and how you pull that together for students who have autism.”
Preparing for the next conference
Registration for the second Think Tank, which will be held April 4-5 in the Texas Tech McKenzie-Merket Alumni Center, is now open. Much of the feedback the Burkhart Center received about the first conference has influenced the structure of the second conference.
“One of the things they learned in the first conference is that everyone wanted to discuss the information they were learning, and sometimes there wasn't enough time between sessions to do so,” Lechtenberger said. “People kept leaving and going out in the hall to have those discussions, or huddling up at lunch.”
The solution: setting aside blocks of time between sessions specifically for attendees to discuss the information they just received and how it relates to their own programs.
“Conferences like this are uncommon, but very much needed,” said Mellinee Lesley, associate dean of graduate education and research in the Texas Tech College of Education. “Many of these schools already have programs for students with autism, they just need a bit more support so they can coordinate with student services and other areas on their campuses. The conference will help colleges and universities better support students with autism spectrum disorder by allowing institutions to share best practices and learn about the groundbreaking work the Burkhart Center does at Texas Tech.”
In addition to allowing them to share their own best practices related to the information, these discussions allow attendees to create networks they can reach out to once they are back on their own campuses.
“We want attendees to leave with a sense of community, hope and empowerment,” Dotson said. “Often those doing this work are doing so on small teams with minimal resources, and we want them to know they are not alone and that the work they are doing is important and appreciated. With the tremendous need and minimal empirical evidence for positive supports, creating communities of researchers and direct-service teams is vital to help document the outcomes being achieved and models used.
“We want to help establish a community of connected and mutually supporting professionals working to help the thousands of college students with autism across Texas and the rest of the United States.”