Project CASE provides support, advising and avenues to success for students with autism.
DeAnn Lechtenberger will never forget a phone call she received more than a decade ago. It was about 40 degrees outside and sleeting, and the Texas Tech University student on the other end needed a favor. He had cerebral palsy, used a walker and needed a signature from an administrator on campus.
“He called and said, ‘would you please look up when the office closes? I'm afraid I'm not going to get there on time,'” he told her.
Lechtenberger, a professor of special education, looked up the office hours and told the student he had until 5 p.m. Be careful out there, she added.
“I've got a list of things I've got to get signed off,” the student told her. “He was listing all these people he had to get signatures from the week it's sleeting and cold outside.”
After the phone call Lechtenberger kept thinking about this situation. The student got grant money to pay for housing and scholarships to pay for tutoring, all from different organizations. He couldn't drive, so he either walked or made arrangements with Citibus. She asked him later if he'd ever had a meeting where all the people he needed to sign his paperwork attended and passed the papers around instead of him walking all over campus.
The next time around she set up that meeting with the help of Student Disability Services. It worked. In addition to getting the paperwork completed, the different agencies got a better idea of what the student needed and how his needs could be met.
Lechtenberger remembered this student as she was preparing a grant proposal for the Texas Council on Developmental Disabilities. Her idea was to create a program that would provide college students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities with a support system. A number of students with ASD attend college, but many drop out soon after – not for lack of academic ability, but because they never find a way to overcome organizational and relationship difficulties brought on by autism.
That program, in its fifth year at Texas Tech, is known as Project CASE and helps dozens of students succeed in college. It was highlighted this month on Friendship Circle, a special needs resource, as one of 10 collegiate programs in the nation to offer services to college students with autism spectrum disorder.
“The first year of the program one student called me from across campus and said, ‘Can I please come in and talk to you? I'm alone in the middle of 30,000 people,'” Lechtenberger said. “That just really kind of sums it up. Our students want to connect with other students and feel like they're part of the Red Raider family.”
How Project CASE works
Project CASE, which stands for Connections for Academic Success and Employment, is supplementary support for students with developmental disabilities. The program is housed in the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research, and most of the students have autism spectrum disorder. But a few have other developmental disorders.
Students who are accepted to Texas Tech and qualify for help from the Office of Student Disability Services can then apply to Project CASE if they need more support. They are working toward a degree, which sets CASE apart; other programs in the state help students get certificates or take classes, but rarely earn full degrees and get jobs. Texas Tech partners with South Plains College as well for students who want to start at a community college or who want to earn an associate's degree or a technical certificate.
CASE isn't about tutoring, providing academic help or advocating for these students. Lechtenberger and her team are teaching students to become advocates for themselves.
“It really is about helping them find their voice and using that voice to create the life they want for themselves,” she said.
Each student is assigned to a learning specialist, all of whom are trained in special education. The specialist meets with each student weekly, helping with organization and time management, going over class syllabi, asking about roommates and other relationships and checking in with them about their week.
Once a month they have a bigger meeting known as a wraparound meeting. Students choose who they want on their teams: an academic adviser or tutor, representatives from Student Disability Services, their learning specialist or even faculty members, personnel from community service providers or an employer. The people present at the wraparound meeting should be those who know the students and will assist the students in resolving their challenges to succeed in college and the workplace.
The student also conducts this meeting, which provides another opportunity to teach students they are responsible for their lives.
“We talk to them about how you're responsible for your needs being met,” Lechtenberger said. “It's not the professor's job; it's not your parents' job, it's not even the different agencies you may be getting services from. It's your job to get your needs met, so that means you've got to learn to ask for help when you need it.”
At the meeting the team talks about students' needs. If they're struggling in a class, they discuss tutoring, how much time spent studying, effective methods of studying and ways to approach professors if extra help is needed. If they need an internship they talk about different employers and options.
Why Project CASE works
Much of the direction from these meetings is based around the student's results in the Birkman behavioral assessment, which each student takes upon enrolling in Project CASE. It highlights interests, strengths and stress points. This serves to highlight potential major or career options and give the student and CASE specialists ideas of how to approach problems. Lechtenberger said simple adjustments often fix problems.
For example, the assessment showed one student was much more relaxed and energetic when he was outside. Spending hours in classrooms or the library studying drained his energy and adversely affected his academic performance. Knowing how critical being outside was, Lechtenberger suggested the student find a place outdoors where he could study. When the weather was bad, he reserved the tree room at the Burkhart Center so he could still have a sense of the outdoors. She also suggested he take frequent breaks and go for a walk or check out a bike and go for a ride.
“It's amazing how much that changed his ability to handle stress because he knows that about himself now,” she said.
He now is studying range management, and his best semester academically included the assignment to count white-tailed deer and quail in the fields surrounding Lubbock.
The Birkman assessment and wraparound meetings provide students with tools to recognize and address many of the obstacles, Lechtenberger said. Many obstacles aren't unique to students with ASD, but these students frequently need to learn how to cope with problems or are so consumed with anxiety they miss out on social cues that could help.
The value of Project CASE comes from teaching the students to act on their own behalf, not doing the hard work for them. Stephen Castro, a senior studying electronic media and communication, said having a person and place to ask for help has taught him how to resolve his own concerns.
“If I have a question about class, if I have a problem, I contact my learning specialist and she gives me advice to help me find the solution,” he said.
Same for David Siegel, who will graduate in December with a minor in theatre. He has been part of Project CASE since its inception and said the wraparound meetings focused on getting him organized and making sure he had the tools necessary to solve problems.
“They give me confidence,” he said.
Project CASE: It works
CASE has a 76 percent retention rate. It's almost twice the nationwide retention rate of students with ASD without additional support, and close to the 83 percent retention rate of Texas Tech as a whole.
“This is a truly innovative program,” said Wes Dotson, co-director of the Burkhart Center.
He shared other statistics – CASE has 19 graduates, 18 of whom are competitively employed. They have a couple who are pursuing graduate degrees. Anecdotally, students with ASD are happy. They're getting more out of their education and are more prepared to enter the “real world.” The program is earning recognition as well; in July, Lechtenberger, Dotson, learning specialist Rachel Harmon, Castro and his parents sat in front of the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities and talked about all the good CASE has done. Castro's parents said they were told when their son was only 4 or 5 years old that he would never speak. Castro then talked about his college experience.
That was Castro's third presentation in front of a large audience. He discussed his career goals – he wants to work in TV production, preferably sports – and his experience and training from another grant-funded program, Project SPEAK, which helped him become comfortable with public speaking.
This wasn't his first experience with publicity, either. In April, Castro organized an autograph session with Texas Tech football coach Kliff Kingsbury; prior to the session, he contacted Project CASE students, staff and parents to raise money for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Kingsbury's favorite charity. He presented the money and a signed 2016 Autism Walk T-shirt to Kingsbury at the autograph session.
“He was nice, and he was very welcoming toward us,” Castro said of the coach. “I gave him the money that we were able to raise for CASA.”
Castro is one success story. Siegel is another. He got involved with the BurkTech Players, a theatre troupe made up of theatre and dance students and Project CASE students, at its inception two years ago and found his home on stage. He has career plans that sound quite similar to any other aspiring actor.
“I'm going to try to get a place of my own and get a job while I try to pursue my acting career,” Siegel said. “I'll look for theatre or entertainment, something like that, but I have to have a job that can put food on the table until I can get a career in that. You've got to find the opportunities first.”
There are plenty more stories. A year ago a student graduated with a bachelor's degree in architecture. He needed an internship, and his learning specialist reached out to a number of local architecture firms to help him set that up. It included updating the strategic plan for Buffalo Springs Lake, and the Center for Active Learning and Undergraduate Engagement (CALUE) gave him a scholarship to pay for gas money so he could get out there, take pictures, create drawings and put the project together.
“He told us when he came in he wanted to be an architect so he could create beautiful public places,” Lechtenberger said.
He also needed a studio course that looked at designing public spaces. For most architecture students, that course meant six weeks abroad. He didn't want to go. His adviser told him they'd worry about it when the time came for him to do it. If nothing else, the College of Architecture offered programs in Mexico and Colorado, which were closer to home and more familiar.
The time came. He talked to his CASE learning specialist and academic adviser, then packed his bags and went to Seville, Spain.
“He was so quiet and reserved, but when he went to Spain he was sending us texts with pictures and he was smiling from ear to ear,” Lechtenberger said. “He was just beaming. He was having such a good time, and we would have never predicted that was possible.”
That student got a job at an architecture firm in Dallas when he graduated; his employer told him the firm would pay for a master's degree should he decide to get one.
Other students work or volunteer at places that helped them when they were younger. Many used hippotherapy as treatment; they now are able to volunteer at the Therapeutic Riding Center and be a part of providing that therapy to younger students. Some students volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House, remembering the many hours they spent in hospitals and medical offices and how frightening those experiences could be.
“They're taking their experience and turning that into a positive with encouragement and support to others,” Lechtenberger said. “It's about making connections and teaching them how to find those connections. That goes back to it is their responsibility to get their needs met.”
These stories are the message Lechtenberger, Dotson and the Burkhart Center staff are sharing now. The grant they earned five years ago expire this year, and they are looking for ways to fill the financial gap. Earlier this summer the Burkhart Center hired a full-time development officer to apply for grants and work with potential donors. They also will charge a fee for students enrolled in Project CASE. Lechtenberger voiced concern about the transition and the program's affordability for the students who need this level of support.
Providing this support is important, though, and anytime she wonders she remembers the student majoring in range management who always wants to be outside. He is from a family of Red Raiders – parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings. He had no hope of joining the scarlet and black until his sister, who was a nurse in Lubbock, heard about Project CASE and passed it on to her family.
“He continues to tell me the day he found out he could be a Red Raider like the rest of his family was the happiest day of his life,” she said, pausing for a moment as her eyes filled with tears. “He has all the Red Raider gear; I see him in it all over campus. He's just a very fine young man that people didn't necessarily have high hopes for in college until he came to Texas Tech and Project CASE. We couldn't be prouder of him.”