Colleges and universities with support programs welcome students with autism

By: - April 7, 2023 11:29 am

College support programs for students with autism and other developmental disabilities exist in New Jersey, but many don't know about them. (Photo courtesy of Rowan University)

Cat Rogers knew the odds were against him.

Like most people diagnosed with autism, attending college, receiving multiple job offers, and making friends were not in his favor. But despite challenges, Rogers, 29, will graduate with a master’s in education from Rowan University in May, start a job teaching biology, physics, and anatomy at a New Jersey high school in September, and tie the knot next year.

Diagnosed with autism at age 24, Rogers understands he triumphed. A national study found 35% of students with autism attend college, while a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found the unemployment rate for people with a disability is almost twice as high as for those without one.

He credits his success to Rowan’s PATH Program, designed to support neurodivergent students while they’re in school so they can stay on track, keep up with their course loads, make friends, and experience college. PATH — Preparation and Achievement in the Transition to Hire —emphasizes the “transition to employment” component of the program.

“It’s a definite game changer,” Rogers said. “Once parents learn their child is diagnosed with autism, instead of dreaming that child might grow up to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, they instead opt for the ‘I will be happy if they at least finish high school and make friends.’”

Similar college support programs for students with autism and other developmental disabilities exist in New Jersey, from Stockton University to Ramapo College, and in other states nationwide. With 1 in 36 children diagnosed nationally with autism — and 1 in 34 in New Jersey — “there is a need for these programs,” said Jerisa Maseko, director of adult life planning at the Arc of New Jersey.

“These programs address a need, and because they are fairly new, many parents don’t know about them,” Maseko said. “The supports are designed to keep students on track and in school so they can graduate with a degree.”

Cat Rogers called Rowan University’s PATH Program “a definite game-changer.”

Changing the journey

The typical journey for students with an autism diagnosis — whether in public school or an out-of-district placement in a private school — means lower expectations.

“Identifying as neurodivergent automatically labels people as being less than compared to our neurotypical counterparts,” Rogers said. “The accommodations we receive in elementary, middle, and high school often do not level the playing field.”

Rogers believes the workload is less challenging, and noted that tests and homework are rarely assigned.

“We are often trained to work menial jobs requiring little skills and aptitude,” he said. “As a result, faith in our ability drops off and the academic bar is lowered.”

For Rogers, who hails from Oak Ridge, a late-in-life diagnosis meant going from “feeling like I was a failed neurotypical to learning I’m a perfectly good autistic person,” he said.

While at Rowan, Rogers worked closely with Chiara Jean Latimer, PATH Program coordinator and co-director of Rowan’s Center for Neurodiversity. At the time, in 2017, Rogers offered input to shape the program, which launched in March 2019. He also founded and led the Student Neurodiversity Club, which provides a safe space for neurodivergent students.

PATH has grown since its inception. Tailored to each student, counseling sessions occur once or twice a week and cover everything from mental health to ensuring students keep up with their course loads.

“For many of our students, this is the first time they’re away from home,” Latimer said. “They have a lot of freedom and say in their own level of participation. College is a time when students start to see themselves as adults and we treat them as adults. It’s exciting and, at times, overwhelming. Academics, study skills, and socializing are all part of the college experience and are equally addressed.”

This summer, PATH will add a four-week travel and study component where students will participate in an environmental program in the Grand Canyon that includes hiking, geology, and sustainability.

PATH is open to students with autism and other developmental disabilities. Students first apply to Rowan and once accepted they sign up for PATH. The program is free thanks to an endowment from a family whose child participated in PATH, graduated from Rowan, and got a job. Additional funders support the program.

Learning social skills

Being away from home is an adjustment for all students.

Amy Gravino, diagnosed with autism at 11, is a relationship coach at the College Support Program, a unit of the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services on the school’s Douglass campus in New Brunswick.

Gravino wishes there had been a similar program when she attended college.

“At school, I knew I was different,” she said. “Different was not acceptable and the world let me know.”

Rutgers’ Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology created the autism services center in 2016 to help adults with autism who age out of the K-12 education system. Gravino came on board in 2020.

When she meets Rutgers students, they discuss friendships, dating, and sexuality.

“It’s hard when you don’t feel comfortable in social situations,” Gravino said. “I struggled with this when I was in college. Here, students learn to advocate for themselves, to be themselves, and to form friendships.”

They also learn about being aware of one’s personal space, making eye contact, keeping a conversation going, and being a responsible adult.

While most universities and colleges have disability offices, they don’t all offer tailored support programs. Students get basic accommodations because colleges operate under different rules, and don’t have the same legal obligations as elementary and high schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They no longer have Individualized Education Plans, which offer support services to special education students in preschool through high school at public schools.

Josh Garfinkel chose to attend Rutgers specifically for its College Support Program.

Making the transition doable

Josh Garfinkel, 18, a native of Somerset, chose Rutgers specifically for the College Support Program.

“I’m on the autism spectrum and wanted to find a university that had a good program that supports students like me,” he said. “Transitioning from high school to college is sometimes difficult to navigate. Rutgers has a solid academic reputation and it’s close to home.”

Garfinkel lives on campus and finds everything within easy reach. He takes two classes at Rutgers Livingston and gets there on the campus bus.

“Keeping up with studies, creating goals, and sticking to deadlines can be overwhelming,” he said. “The counselors in CSP keep me focused and on top of it all.”

He likes his independence and when he’s not studying or in class, he spends time with friends and peer mentors (all of the colleges and universities that offer support programs have peer mentors who work closely with their students). He meets with peer mentors twice a week. He participates in the photography club.

“We grab a meal, go to an art museum, and do other fun things,” he said. “Living on campus allows me to interact with people with various backgrounds and helps me develop my social skills.”

He added: “This is my first year at Rutgers. Adjusting took a bit of time, but it was doable because of the people and services at the CSP.”

Students interested in joining CSP must first be accepted into Rutgers. There is an annual $7,000 CSP fee.

Dan Swart credits TCNJ’s Lion Plus program for raising his GPA.

Continuing education

Rowan, Rutgers, and The College of New Jersey continue to update, expand, and tailor their support programs to meet the needs of their students.

TCNJ’s Lion Plus Program for students on the autism spectrum looks different today than when it began in 2016.

“This program sets them up for success in terms of college academics, personal social skills, and career,” said Dixita Malatesta, learning specialist and the program’s manager. “In terms of retention, our students stay in school and graduate with a degree.”

Lion Plus is open to students with autism, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities. Once accepted at TCNJ, students then apply to Lions Plus. The fee is $2700 per semester, or $5,000 per year.

Some of the students remain in the program while earning their degrees and others opt out if they feel comfortable without the services in their junior or senior year.

TCNJ freshman Dan Swart, age 19, of Pennington, majors in mechanical engineering.

“I had no real study skills or ability to manage my time,” Swart said. “Many of my grades dropped swiftly by the time I decided to reach out to the program for help.”

Swart worked closely with a Lion Plus advisor and TCNJ’s Center for Student Success. Together, they built a schedule that covered everything from when Swart would have meals, take work breaks, study, and do assignments.

“I came into the 2022-23 school year expecting to treat it almost as a gap year so I could gain some course credits for later on,” Swart said, “but this program allowed me to go from being entirely unprepared for college to a student with a 3.25 GPA.”

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Michele C. Hollow
Michele C. Hollow

Michele C. Hollow covers health, mental health, pet care, and climate for a variety of publications including The New York Times, WebMD, Parents, AARP, The Guardian, and Symphony Magazine. She’s a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and loves being a journalist because it’s a form of continuing education. She resides in New Jersey with her husband, their son, and their cat.