Friday, March 18, 2016

Planning for Next Year

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, and, as a first time blogger, I’m learning a lot about what I need to change to be more diligent about posting.  First of all, I need to schedule a time to write and put it on my calendar.  Second, I need to stop waiting until I have updates on the program to write.  Here’s what I mean by that.  For the last several months, I’ve been waiting patiently for the Tennessee Board of Regents to approve the student fee for Full Spectrum Learning.  In order to serve students to the best of our ability, we have to implement a fee so that the program can be self sustaining.  Grant funds are great, but they only last the term of the grant (in our case, we had two small grants for the 2015-16 year), and they can often be difficult to acquire.  I’ve been waiting on word from my administration about this decision so that I can give all of the details of what the program will look like next year, but it hasn’t come, so guess what?  I’m going to stop waiting around and write anyway.
         Since August, I have had the opportunity to work with 10 amazing individuals.  Although all have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, they are all very different and have unique talents and challenges.  I think, as a society, we tend to think all individuals with autism need to be lumped into one category and all have the same needs.  This is an absolute untruth.  Of these 10 individuals, I have interacted with and assisted all of them in different ways.  They have unique personalities, varying organizational skills (or lack thereof), and multiple academic majors (people often ask me if they are all computer science majors).  Some of the students rarely speak in class; they simply soak everything in.  Others do not want to stop talking and can dominate the conversation at times.  Some of them become over stimulated very easily. Others can be overstimulating themselves.  They are so different, and it has been a wonderful experience. 
         As I plan for next year, I think about all of their strengths and needs, the advice that they have given me to make the program better, and what I can do to make their educational experience as stress free and successful as I can.  I’m also considering the needs of our incoming freshman.  These are things like housing and roommates, registration, and transitioning from high school to college life. We are determined that this program will always be student focused and based on the needs of FSL participants.  We always appreciate feedback, so if you have suggestions or just comments, feel free to post, or email me at  I’ll write again when I have information about the fee and services for next year.  Hopefully that will be soon!

If you or someone you know is autistic, planning to go to college, and would like to apply to our program, visit  The application is at the bottom of the home page.  

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

One Semester Complete and Many More to Go

The first semester of FSL is complete, and I can’t wait to start the second.  During the first semester, we were able to offer one-on-one mentoring, one-on-one tutoring, and my favorite part, the one-hour a week course. 

I was a little worried about the mentoring at first.  I didn’t want the participants to feel that I was trying to insult them by suggesting that they needed one, but they loved it.  Some were able to do things with their mentors such as go to the Foy Center and work out, while others attended APSU functions like dances or simply “practiced” socializing.  Many friends were made during the semester, and I couldn’t be happier about the outcome.  One of the participants actually said that, although she had a tough semester (a grandparent passed and difficult classes), it had been her best for making friends and getting more comfortable socializing. 

I realized very quickly that I’m going to need to have a “social hour” in addition to the course.  The participants have so many great discussions, but as the instructor, I have to get in the content of the course, so during this spring semester, we’ll have an hour for class, and then I’ll be available for an hour for them to stay and socialize.  It’s amazing to me how much I learn during these classes and social times.  Although the program is technically for them, it’s quite possible that I learned the most last semester. 

Also during the spring semester, we’ll be adding some supervised study hours and “coaching” that will involve the participants having one-on-one sessions with FSL staff (we’re hoping to be able to add more this semester with grant funds) to discuss issues such as course work, grades, specific needs, etc.  These sessions will be guided by goal setting and teaching participants how to choose strategies that will best work in specific situations.  

I can’t wait to see what the new semester will hold.  We’ll be having a few additional members this semester, and I’m already being contacted and meeting with people from across the country about participation in the program next fall.  It’s an exciting time for us, and I’m so happy that we’re taking these steps at APSU! 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What About Research??

Research.  Should we?  Shouldn’t we?  Will it drive away potential FSL participants?  Will it make them feel like lab rats or guinea pigs once they’re in the program?  How in the world can we possibly conduct research?  These were my thoughts, and then something happened.  Dr. John McConnell and Curtis Harris happened.  I’ve mentioned Dr. McConnell in previous posts as an Assistant Professor of Research and Statistics in the College of Education, but he’s also a key player in the development of FSL. Curtis Harris, director of Advanced Behavior Consultants has also been a very valuable asset to this program from the beginning.   They have both shown me that research can be the key to a successful program, and best of all, that it’s not necessarily the participants that we have to study. 

While looking at other programs in the United States, we noticed that there’s not a lot of research taking place.  In fact, research on programs for adults with ASD in general is basically unexplored territory.  As I’ve stated in previous posts, adulthood makes up the vast majority of one’s lifespan.  It only makes sense to create programs for adults with ASD just as there are programs for children birth to 22 in the public schools.  It also makes sense, at least to our team, to research and share results so that others can build programs across the country. 

So how did we decide what to study?  We started with the basics, which we feel are retention and completion of our participants.   We’ll be keeping track of Grade Point Averages (GPAs), retention rates, and completion rates, but we do that with all students at APSU, so it’s not specific to FSL.  We then looked at what is going to make our program successful, and decided that those working with our participants and their ability to do so effectively are keys to the success of the participants.  Based on that conclusion, here are the research studies currently taking place: 

1.  Self-Efficacy Study: Mentor and tutor efficacy, or the power to produce a desired result or effect, is being measured by using an adaptation of a teacher efficacy scale.  We are seeking to measure the effects of mentor and tutor training, which they all receive from the FSL team, on their self-efficacy in addressing the cognitive, behavioral, and social skills of students with ASD. We feel that, if we can empower student mentors and tutors to believe that they can work with and make a difference for students with ASD, then the recruitment, retention, and graduation of these students may improve in addition to the attitudes of those who work with them.

2.  Effective Coaching Study: Because there may be a difference between how mentors and tutors rate their self-efficacy and the actual effectiveness of their work with FSL participants, we are also attempting to gauge the coaching ability of mentors in working with students with ASD and investigate differences, if any, between the their perceived efficacy and actual results. By examining the individualized goals and progress of FSL participants and how their mentors were able to facilitate the completion of those goals, we hope to provide guidance on improving the mentoring experience over the life of the program.

3.  Empathy Study: It is also important that students and faculty have empathy with those who are different from them. Using the La Monica Empathy profile by Rigolosi, this study seeks to inform program decisions on how to expand the empathy of those who work with individuals with ASD and advance the working relationships for all involved.

Although I have struggled with the idea of including too much research in the program, I have already been able to see the benefits of implementing these studies based on the way that they are shaping the improvement efforts of FSL.  I know that research is a touchy subject for programs such as this, so I encourage anyone with questions about the research to contact out team.  All of our contact information can be found at 

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Real Experts

I came into this program knowing little more about autism than any other special educator.  I had studied autism in my college course work and even observed a few autism classrooms, but I had never had a student with an ASD diagnosis in my resource or behavior classrooms, and I had never worked as a professional with an adult diagnosed with ASD.  I quickly started having people tell me “you’re the expert”, and it made me feel like a big fake.  I was doing all that I could to learn as much as I could in a very short period of time.  I felt like I did all of the right things.  I read up on ASD, I consulted professionals that I felt were experts in the area; but when I began teaching the class for FSL participants, I realized that I still had a lot to learn.  Want to know what else I realized?  That my students are the real experts, and that none of the so called “autism experts”, unless diagnosed with autism themselves, will ever truly be an expert. 

One of the first things pointed out to me was my students’ dislike for person first language.  As a professional, I had been taught to always use person first language, and I’ve been teaching this in higher education for the past six years.  We’re supposed to say “a child with autism”.  It’s politically correct, right?  It’s putting the person in front of their disability and therefore not identifying them as their diagnosis.  Not according to my students.  They would like to be referred to as an “autistic person” or “autistic student”.  They feel that autism is part of who they are.  It’s a part of their identity.  One of them pointed out that no one says that they are a “person with whiteness” or “a person with blackness”.  It’s so true that it makes me feel quite ignorant that I simply followed what I had learned in text books and didn’t bother to ask an expert: someone who actually has autism! 

I am so excited about all that these individuals are going to teach me over the next year.  I have eight autism experts ready and available to educate me every Friday.  The one-hour course is designed for me to assist them in their transition to college, social and independence skills, and academic success, but it is so much more than that. Not only do they benefit from the curriculum, but they have been given a voice, and I can tell you that I’m listening.  I’m soaking it all in so that I can adjust the program as needed and provide what the experts, the real experts, feel that autistic students need to successfully complete a college degree.  These eight individuals may not realize it each week when they come to that Friday afternoon class, but they are going to impact the lives of so many people.  They have no idea how amazing they are, but my goal is to express that to them every chance I get.