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. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

They've Captured My Heart

When first approached to take on this project by Dr. Jaime Taylor (then Interim Provost) and Andrew Shepard-Smith (Executive Director of Research and Sponsored Programs), I was excited to have been chosen to be a part of the process.  I had little understanding at the time of how much FSL would affect the lives of individuals in the Clarksville area and even less understanding of how it would affect my own life. 

I have felt for years that there is a great need for programs to assist students with disabilities in their transition after high school.  It disturbs me how little there is out there for students with disabilities once they leave the public school system.  Starting an autism program at APSU for students meeting the requirements for admissions is a very small step, but one in the right direction nonetheless.  It has already led to conversations in the community about developing other transition programs to meet a broader range of needs.  It is my hope to someday be able to work collaboratively with others to make a productive life after high school a reality for all adults with disabilities.  Luckily, there is no shortage of people in the Clarksville area who strive to do the same, and I foresee great things in our future. 

As I researched programs across the US dealing specifically with autism and higher education, I became excited about what we already have to offer at APSU even without a program.  We have a small campus, which embraces partnerships and strives for student success.  We have counseling services, career services, health services, an academic support center, and an office of disability services.  It was reassuring to know that these supports were already in place as a foundation for our new program. 

I was especially excited about working with disability services.  The Office of Disability Services at APSU offers a broad range of support for individuals with disabilities, but I was saddened by how many of those who would benefit from their services do not register with the office.  As a former special educator in the public K-12 system, I have seen first hand the heartache and embarrassment that often comes with having the label of disability.  It made me realize that one of the most important things that I can do for this program is to ensure that the participants are treated with dignity and feel that they are a part of molding a program that will help others who face the same struggles in the future. 

Now that we’ve been in school for a few weeks and I have met with the FSL participants in class on several occasions, I can say that they have already won my heart.  They are providing me with insight that I would not be able to get elsewhere, and frankly, they’re simply an amazing group of individuals.  I am truly blessed to have been chosen for this project, and my love for these students and the program grows everyday.  I’m eager to continue this journey that we’re taking together, and I know that with their help, we can build a truly amazing program. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

In the Beginning...

At the very beginning of this process, we decided that we wanted APSU and the community to be involved in the development and implementation to the maximum extent possible.  The first step was to create a focus group to discuss the needs of those with ASD on the APSU campus.  I was shocked by the response that I received from people wanting to take part in this focus group.  Over 30 individuals attended three different sessions to narrow down our focus.  These participants included parents of children with ASD, APSU students with and without an ASD diagnosis, faculty and staff from across campus, local therapist, local physicians, and others. The feedback that these individuals were able to provide was priceless.  I would highly recommend that anyone interested in creating a program take this step.  

Once the focus group was complete, we realized that our main focus needed to be on social and academic support for our students, as well as faculty training and support.  This is when the real work began. During the spring 2015 semester, Professor John McConnell and I took applications from students who were interested in volunteering to become mentors and tutors for the program.  These students completed applications, went through an interview process, and once chosen, attended a two-day training to become familiar with ASD and the tasks they will be completing as mentors.  Seeing how excited these students were (and still are) to participate in this program has been amazing.  They have already put many hours into the program, and they even named it Full Spectrum Learning.  

Also during the spring 2015 semester, I worked closely with many individuals, including the staff of MoSAIC at UT Chattanooga, to discuss logistics and go through the proper channels to start this program.  Over the summer, I have worked closely with Martin Golson in the Academic Services Center to arrange the one-on-one tutoring that our participants will receive and Lynette Taylor in the Office of Disability Services to help us get the word out to current students.  I’ve had many individuals on and off campus donate their time to this cause, and it is truly appreciated.  At this time, all of the work that has gone into development has been voluntary, so I say with honesty that the passion and dedication of our campus and community have made this possible. 

At this time, FSL is a pilot program.  This basically means that we are doing a trial run. This semester, we will create a business plan, work with Vocational Rehabilitation, financial aid, Tennessee Board of Regents, and a multitude of others to make this program official and long lasting.  The process can seem overwhelming, but it is completely worth it. I feel like I should say that this will be a slow process, but the fact that we were able to get this up and running in less than a year is nothing short of a miracle.  I’m grateful to have been asked to oversee this program, and I am truly blessed to be able to do so at APSU where the university and community are so supportive. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Full Spectrum Learning: Our Journey Begins

Each year in the United States, an estimated 50,000 individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) turn 18, and that number is on the rise.  Approximately 1/3 of these individuals attend college, and of those, only around 20% graduate despite their ability to succeed academically.  Resources typically focus on early childhood due to the potential to improve outcomes early in life, yet adulthood makes up the vast majority of one's lifespan.  Doesn't it make sense to provide resources to improve adult outcomes as well?

At Austin Peay State University (APSU), we see the opportunity to provide support for our students with autism and see the potential they have for independence and a successful life.  Beginning the fall 2015 semester, the Martha Dickerson Eriksson College of Education is offering a program that has been named Full Spectrum Learning (FSL).  Our primary purpose is to increase the success of students with ASD in the area of academics, engagement, and retention at APSU.  This will occur by offering individualized tutoring, peer and faculty mentoring, and a course focusing on independence, academic, and social skills.  The curriculum for this course was developed by Michelle Rigler, Amy Rutherford, and Emily Quinn.  These wonderful ladies run the MoSAIC program at UT Chattanooga and have published this curriculum based on 8 years of experience working with students with ASD in higher education.  It is our desire that this program will be able to assist as many students as possible in their transition to college life, obtaining a college degree, and beginning a successful career.

It goes without saying that I would like this blog to make others aware that we have this program and are looking for participants, but I also have a deeper aspiration.  I want this blog to spread the word that we need programs like this one across the country, and by sharing our experiences, both good and bad, I hope to make the lives of those developing these programs a little easier.