Conference Call: Day 4 of the National Autism Conference - Support

August 05, 2010

Staff members and interns from Penn State Outreach are blogging from the National Autism Conference at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel throughout the week. The conference, which averages about 2,500 participants, features experts in autism, educators, autism advocates, people with autism and their families. In this summary of conference sessions, Erin Rowley, a senior majoring in journalism and history, blogs about issues that college students with Asperger’s Syndrome face, and Kyle Casey, a senior majoring in public relations, blogs about support systems at home and school. Both are interns with Penn State Outreach.

By Erin Rowley

College is not the time for young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome to learn how to do laundry or how to wake up without a parent telling them to do so.

That’s one of the conclusions Janet Graetz offered during her presentation on Thursday (Aug. 5), called “Creating a Successful College Experience.”

Graetz, an associate professor in the department of human development and child studies at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., led a study that observed 19 Oakland University students with Asperger’s over the course of a year.

She found that students with Asperger’s, which is an autism spectrum disorder characterized by severe trouble with social situations, suffered from elevated stress levels, difficulty relaxing and sleeping and little social interaction. The students also reported feeling that their lives were out of their own control.

Her university offers many resources for students with Asperger’s, such as counseling, a peer program and a writing center, but she found that many students were not utilizing them and were not getting involved with other activities on campus.

“We want them in our universities. We want them in our communities,” she said. “We want them to go to a basketball game, go to the recreation center, attend lectures. We’ve been addressing this, but we need to do more.”

One barrier to success in college, Graetz said, is that some parents and teachers coddle young adults with Asperger’s too much, making it difficult for them to transition to the independence that college provides.

Anyone who’s walked down College Avenue, which borders Penn State's University Park campus, can see what Graetz means when she points out that college communities are filled with all sorts of characters. That makes college, with the right support in place, a good fit for people with Asperger’s. Their quirkiness, she said, is more likely to be embraced at college than it was in grade school.

About 50 people attended the session, and many of them were parents of children with Asperger’s.

Wendy Bonn, 49, of Mohnton, Pa., came to the session hoping to pick up some tips. She has two children on the autism spectrum. Her son will enter college this fall to study wildlife conservation, and she wants to be as prepared as possible to help him deal with any difficulties he faces.

“He doesn’t need academic support; it’s much more social support that he needs,” she said. “I want to know what I can do to support him with that.”

By Kyle Casey

For many people on the autism spectrum, the daily activities which most of us take for granted, such as cooking, personal hygiene and interacting with others, present a challenge and a struggle.

Dion Betts, superintendent of the Boyertown Area School District, near Reading, Pa., and Nancy Patrick, associate professor of special education at Messiah College, near Harrisburg, Pa., have coauthored multiple books on helping children with autism spectrum disorders. On Thursday, they spoke to family members and educators about how to best support individuals on the spectrum facing these challenges.

According to Betts and Patrick, autism is essentially a case of misunderstanding, and their primary goal is to increase understanding.

“We want to help our participants gain a better understanding about the functions of autism so that they can accurately interpret behaviors and situations, and then apply support that is useful,” Patrick said.

Betts and Patrick say that by understanding the basic characteristics of autism spectrum disorders, one can apply that knowledge to predict potential problems that people with autism may face, and also employ proactive strategies that enable individuals with autism to participate more fully in the activities of everyday life.

Betts said that people on the spectrum need explicit instruction for activities that may be assumed to be inherent, such as playing with others. He said there is a need to demonstrate and teach such activities.

Betts and Patrick say that the best way for parents to ensure success for their children is to “become an interpreter between your child and the world, while providing rich and supportive experiences that allow your child to learn and mature,” and that by doing so one can “take your child from where he or she is to as far as he or she can go.”

  • National Autism Conference attendees enjoy a lunch break outside the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel. For conference details, click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Kyle Casey
Last Updated November 18, 2010