CHARLESTON -- The Eastern Illinois University Autism Center steps up to offer an autism mentoring program, the only one of its kind in much of the Midwest.
Starting in August, the newly formed Students with Autism Transitional Education Program (STEP) provides a mentoring and support group program for high-functioning autism students who need a little more help adjusting to college life.
The $1,000 program, which is an extra $1,000 for each student in the program, focuses on providing support to students who fall under the autism spectrum in academics, social and daily living skills.
The closest program similar to Eastern’s is at Western Kentucky University. Gail Richard, EIU Autism Center director, said she expects this because while there is growing understanding of autism, schools have not been able to afford to further develop their own programs.
Richard said the need is there, though. Autistic students who go to college are often very bright but are plagued with certain characteristics associated with their autism.
Richard also said Eastern’s size is beneficial in testing out and seeing the success of the program for autistic students.
“Eastern is a good place for this program because we are a pedestrian campus,” Richard said. “It is an easy campus to get around.”
The small class size also benefits in allowing the center to easily work with professors to ensure the student is being cared for.
She said a lot of the time, these students have particular difficulties with the giant changes that come with college life. The students often have difficulties with time management, for example.
She said sometimes the autistic students focus on one thing and lose track of time, like with video games.
In this program, the autism center takes several steps to help autistic students transition into being able to handle the new environment foreign and scary to many: college.
The program starts immediately before school. These students are registered into school early, allowing them to get acquainted or reacquainted with the campus before a rush of students comes in.
“If you think about how it is for a normal student and how overwhelming it is, magnify that with high anxiety and hesitancy toward big crowds and new situations," Richard said. "It is overwhelming and can be paralyzing.”
A volunteer student mentors each autistic student one on one to help them through situations challenging to those with the impairment.
“They a mentor who meets with them every week and does some social activities with them,” Richard said. “Their role is more of a friend to them.”
Mentors introduce the students to events and places such as clubs on campus. They even help the students with things such as riding the Panther Shuttle, a bus service for students.
Aside from the mentorship aspect of the program, students also attend weekly support groups with other students in the program to talk about issues they're facing and participate in social exercises to get them over the humps they may have previously faced.
Students in the program are also checked on to ensure their grades have not slipped, Richard said. Without that initial support system, autistic students can fall off on their school work because of their inability to budget their time properly.
Will Campbell, a student involved in the program, said it has helped him budget his time more efficiently.
“It was one of my biggest weaknesses in high school,” Campbell said.
Jason Paige, another student in the program, said it is much more than a program for students who fall behind.
He said in many ways, other programs do not fit the needs necessary for a student with autism.
The program is temporary, though. Richard said this is a transitional programming to help students overcome the challenges they face along with the hardships of college life.
Richard said she wants them to get to a point where they do not need the program and use the social and academic skills introduced in the program.
So far, four students are involved in the program, but Richard said she expects the number to grow quickly because of the need for it on a college campus.
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