Leah Managhan is the Disability Services Coordinator at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. In this webcast she will describe the types of services offered through the disability services office on a college campus.
Can you explain what type of information or services a student can expect from the Disability Services office on a college or university campus?
In general I would say Disability Services offices, you’re going to find them on the vast majority of campuses. Sometimes there’s a person who’s actually designated in that role, and sometimes it’s a person who’s wearing multiple hats, who is providing accommodations, so you kind of sometimes need to seek that person out. But every college has someone designated to insure that the college is meeting their obligation under the American’s with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the rehab act of 1973. And really they’re there to insure students with disabilities have access to not only the curriculum but campus life in general. They do that by providing academic accommodations and auxiliary services, things like exam accommodations, note taking assistance, interpreters, books in alternate format, adaptive transportation and those sorts of things. In addition the disability services coordinator is usually a person who’s there to advocate for students, to educate faculty and staff on campus about disability related issues, and they can also be a sounding board for students with disabilities and their families. So when problems arise, we’re those people that the student can come in and sit down and talk with, and figure out solutions to those problems and put plans in place, and those sorts of things.
When it comes to a student with autism or Aspergers Syndrome what types of service might that student expect from the disability services office?
Well it’s really going to depend on the student and the extend of their disability and for student with autism and Aspergers, I mean as everybody knows, they vary and no two students with autism or Aspergers are alike. So it’s really going to depend on how that student is impacted, so that’s where comprehensive documentation is really important, and also that student and their family sitting down with the disability services coordinator to talk about their educational experience and what kind of problems that they have academically. And then we can tailor their accommodations accordingly. But I would say most students can access things like extra time for tests, so for students who may have difficulty processing information quickly, they may have fifty to one hundred percent additional time to take their tests. They might have the ability to take that in a quiet place if they’re easily distracted. For some students with autism or Aspergers syndrome they may have fine motor problems, so they may need a scribe or they can use a computer to take their tests. And again, when they have those fine motor difficulties they may need note taking assistance in class, or have access to the professors notes, so that they can have a copy of the notes sitting in front of them and allow them to listen, as opposed to having to write everything down as the professor is talking. And they also may have difficulty figuring out what’s important to write down, so having another set of notes there to compare is also very helpful. They also can have priority seating in class, so for those students who are easily distracted by everything going on around, they may find it easier to sit up front where they’re not able to see everyone else around them. Or maybe it’s best for some students to sit in the back of the room, where they can leave quickly if they need to take a break if they’re becoming overwhelmed in the classroom, so that’s something that can help. Priority registration, we can allow students to register before any other students on campus so they can select classes that meet their needs. For some students, early morning classes don’t work well, often times I recommend that students have breaks throughout their day, because they can become overwhelmed by sitting in a class and having all this information. So they may need time to unwind, to decompress, have a place where they can go that’s quiet and relax, and then go back to class. So being able to space out their classes throughout the day is always really helpful. And also having balance in their schedule, for some students they’re going to have difficulty with classes that have a large volume of reading, so they’re going to want to have just one class that’s a literature based class. And then kind of mix in math or science, or something in their major that’s interesting to them. So that’s how that can be helpful. Reduced course load is often very helpful for them as well, and that might be just maybe during the first couple of years, and they need to expect that they’re going to have to stay in college maybe an extra year, but often time a reduce course load can be very helpful. In college, twelve hours is considered full time, and at my institution we usually can recommend that students take two academic course which are five credit hours each, and them they might just add in a couple of recreation classes, a yoga class, something’s that kind of fun and can help them relax and distress. But they only have those two academic classes to focus on and it can be easier for them to manage their time. We also can look at course substitutions as well, for students often times have a lot of difficulty in math, for some students who are on the autism spectrum. And with proper documentation we may be able to substitute that if it’s not essential to their course of study, same with foreign language. And those are typically the courses we can look at substituting in a curriculum because on a college campus they can often make the case that certain classes are essential to a major and those are things that we can’t substitute. But again, things like math and foreign language are things we can often substitute with other courses. And then outside of class, outside the academic arena we can make housing accommodations. Often that’s a single room for some students, or living in certain types of housing, so those are the ways that we can accommodate students outside the classroom.
Does the office of disability services also assist students with social issues?
Yes, I would say because it is certainly a big piece of college for many students is the social aspect. In my experience, often times it’s less about the academic part, then it’s about behavior in class, and getting along with other students in the residence halls, and also feeling a part of that college community. And those are the three areas that I see that students having difficulty with. Behavior in class can often be difficult for students on the autism spectrum, that I’ve had experiences with, in some instances may have a tendency to dominate conversation in class. So I work with the student and I work with the faculty very closely to help redirect that behavior, and to kind of come up with a behavior plan. And each quarter we have to revisit that and that’s fine, but it’s really for me, I check in with the professor regularly, I check in with the student regularly. For the one student in particular that I worked with, we came up with rules every quarter, and in some classes it was reasonable to say that that student could only speak out five times. We came up with these rules in consultation with the instructor, and that seemed to work really well for that student. And again, we kind of would have to sit back and do that again every quarter. And in other classes it was really problematic because these were discussion based classes, they were literature courses where students would come in and have discussions and the student was really dominating the conversation and was shutting out all other discussion by other students, and in that particular class, one of the students on the autism spectrum, the plan that we came up with was to disclose to the class, and that is not something that I would advocate in every situation but it was something that worked really well in this situation because once students began to understand why that student’s behavior was odd and was outside the norm, it was very frustrating for them, but once they understood it really changed the dynamics of the class and students reached out to that student. And it allowed the class to progress, and so in that situation that really worked. And also the students that I’ve worked with, group work is impacted in classes that can be often very difficult for a student with Aspergers and I always recommend that a student disclose to at least their small group. And I also ask professors to select them self the group that the student with Aspergers or autism is working with, selecting possibly more mature students, non traditional students who may be more understanding about the situation, sometimes female students tend to be a little bit more understanding of the situation, can be a little bit more mothering in some ways, picking up that there’s something going on with that student, and it can be more helpful. So, those are the sort of ways that we’ve helped with the social piece in the academic arena. And then it’s trickier; in one situation we had a student who was really having a tough time integrating socially. The student was just coming to campus, going to class, and leaving, and was not at all felling like they were part of the campus and the community there, and so one thing that we were working on, and it actually has not come to fruition yet, was finding a mentor to work with that student. We were trying to find an upper classman who was really involved in campus, who was in fraternity life, possibly in different activities across campus that could serve as sort of a model for that student of how to behave when you go to clubs and groups and how to make small talk with people and how to make friends and do those sorts of things. We had a couple of really good people, but there turned out to be some conflicts of interest in terms of some different issues. But that was one thing that we were working on to help that student integrate into campus life.
You mentioned disclosure can you explain disclosure and the benefits if you choose to disclose?
In college students with disabilities, their disability status is protected, it’s confidential, I treat that as confidential medical information. And so I don’t release anything about their disability unless I have specific permission from that student to do so. And I have students when I meet with them, I ask if it’s OK if I can talk with the professors about their disability status as far as being registered is being registered with my office and the accommodation they receive. That does not give me permission to talk about the specific nature of their disability. However students that I work with with autism, I do talk to them about the benefits of letting the professor know ahead of time. And specifically about the autism and Aspergers because a lot of times the behavior is apparent the first day of class. And in some instances I’ve gotten permission to do that, and some I’ve not. However, I do think that there are a number of benefits to the student. In the instances where I’ve been able to disclose, the way that we’ve handled it, and again this is a case by case basis and I work with the student individually to figure out what’s going to work best, but the ways when I have disclosed is I’ve sent an email to the instructor about a week before the quarter starts and I let them know that there is a student, and here’s the student’s name, they’re going to be in your class and this student has Aspergers, and I go on to describe what Aspergers is in general, and then I go on to say how that student is impacted . And then I also talk about accommodations that the student may need and that this student will come to see you during the first week of class and meet with you individually to talk about specific accommodations in that class. And I have just found that this works really well for students because it gives that professor some time to process that information, they know what to expect when they walk into class that first day, and it gives them a jumping off point when they sit down and have the initial conversation with the student. Because I was finding that a lot of professors, they didn’t really know what Aspergers syndrome, they’d heard about it but they didn’t really know what it was and they didn’t know how to handle it. And it also gave them that connection with me so week two week three when problems arise then they’re comfortable with saying hey there’s a problem, what can we do about it? Let’s sit down and talk, so it’s been a really good thing. And again, it’s up to every individual student and I do ask for written permission to do that but I think that it’s very helpful.
How could the student and or the student’s family best access the office of disability services?
Well I think that that starts before they even come to college, I think when they’re thinking about colleges and that transition from high school to college, and just like every other family they go out and they do their college visits, disability services needs to be on their agenda. They need to go into the disability services office, they need to talk to the disability services provider and find out what resources are available in that college and find out what their experiences working with students with autism or Aspergers and to talk about documentation and to provide that documentation early. It’s always helpful to provide that to the disability services provider while you’re still in high school because if for some reason the documentation is incomplete, then you have that time to get all your ducks in a row, get the documentation in place and have that ready so that you’re not scrambling during the first weeks of the quarter or semester to get that in place. And we really want comprehensive documentation from the psychologist, from the person who made the diagnosis and is treating that student, and IEP in of itself is not considered documentation, it’s helpful, it’s definitely helpful and the most current IEP is useful, let’s us know what accommodations that the student had experienced in the past, but that in of itself will not allow a student to receive services. So we really need that comprehensive documentation lets us know the functional limitations that this student has relating to the autism and Aspergers syndrome. And that what we use in order to make the recommendations and I should also say too that parents and students sometimes have a culture shock going from high school to college because the accommodations can be very different, because as I said earlier we operate on very different laws. In high school you have IDEA, and that’s free and appropriate education and they modify the curriculum, they do whatever it takes to make sure that student is successful. Whereas in college, we’re dealing with civil rights legislation and it’s really outcome neutral, we’re here to give students opportunities to succeed, not to insure that they succeed. So we don’t generally modify curriculum, so students with disabilities are going to take the same number tests, they’re going to do the same work in a class, they just might be doing it in a slightly different way. So it’s always really important to know that as you’re getting into that, and knowing what resources are available.
What advice could you offer to other disability services offices to improve access for a student with autism or Asperger Syndrome?
I think that it’s education, and that is educating your faculty about autism and Aspergers, but as I said earlier, often times they’ve heard the term, but they really don’t know what that means. They don’t know what a student who’s going to show up in their classroom, you know, how they’re going to present themselves and what to do about it. So educating them and making them aware of the issues and how to deal with those. So doing an in-service yourself for your campus, bringing in experts who are nationally recognized is always really helpful because you’re there on campus, you’re the disability services provider, but they do give a lot of weight to expert you bring in from off campus and when at all possible do that. Educate the staff on campus because again it’s not a vacuum, these students aren’t just going to class, educate your housing staff to the issues that might arise, educate your career counseling staff, because it’s really, it isn’t just the disabilities services office, it’s everyone on campus and it’s helpful for them to be aware of those issues, because the student is going to need help and it really kind of takes a village I think.
What advice can you offer to students with autism or Aspergers Syndrome that will make their transition into post secondary education successful?
I think that the most important thing, the most important skill to have as you move from high school to college is the ability to advocate for yourself. I preach that over and over again, those are the students who succeed. If you can advocate for yourself, if you can communicate your needs, and whatever way that is, I mean that may not be being able to sit down and have a long discourse about your strengths and weaknesses. But to have a plan in place as to how you are going to convey your needs, not only to the disability service provider initially, but to every faculty that you’re going to encounter. Because you’re going to have to discuss the disability and your needs three to four times a quarter or semester over four or five years, and so you need to be good at that, and then that’s a skill you’re going to need to take out into the workplace as well. But, and this is kind of an environment to hone knows skills, some students if they are not good communicating verbally with a professor, maybe they have a letter, and maybe is something that Mom and Dad, or family, or disability services providers help them craft ahead of time. A letter that they can present to an instructor and just to kind of outline here’s my strengths and weaknesses, here’s the things I might have problems with in your class. So I think that that is by far the most important thing that a student can do, and to work on and develop as they’re getting ready to go on to college or university.
Are you saying more individuals on the autism spectrum are applying to and enrolling in college?
Yes, yes, I think that in the number of years that I’ve been doing this, yes we have seen our numbers grow significantly, because I think that students with autism and Aspergers are seeing that this is an option, a possibility, and that resources are there for them. So yes, so we are seeing greater number of students coming on to our campus and some students are doing exceptionally well, and not all environments, not all environments work well for those students, so I think finding the right fit is so important before you move on.
Are there any other tips, comments, or advice you would like to offer?
I think just sort of kind of adding to what I was just saying, I think finding a really good environment, whether it’s a community college, living and home, commuting to a community college, or a small private institution, I think, I’ve been at a large four year public institution, and at a small four year and I think there is a lot of benefits to a small environment, where professors really get to know you, you have the same professors multiple times, the staff gets to know you, it can be sometimes a more of a nurturing environment. That doesn’t work for everyone, and for some students they find that they need more structure, and they may find that in a two year or vocational program, where you’re in class this number of hours per day, it’s the same every day, it’s much more structured. So I think really thinking about your strengths and weakness as a student, as a person on the autism spectrum and then really exploring lots of different options and not just limiting yourself to say OK I want to go to a four year college because that doesn’t work for everyone, so really sitting down and doing some soul searching with your family because you really want to find a good fit.