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Autism Symposium, new project at CSU bring autism discussion to forefront

March 9, 2011

Cathy Schelly is passionate about helping people participate fully in life -- from day-to-day tasks to their ability to enjoy and be successful at work.

Cathy SchellyThat’s why, as director of the Center for Community Partnerships and an occupational therapist assistant professor, Schelly and her staff and students are devoted to helping students at Colorado State University with autism spectrum disorders and traumatic brain injuries thrive in CSU’s educational setting. She’s also a leader in planning the university’s first Autism Spectrum Disorders Symposium, slated later this month.

Dozens of current Colorado State University students fall somewhere on the spectrum of autism and Asperger’s syndrome or have experienced traumatic brain injuries. A $2.3 million grant to CSU now gives these students an opportunity to learn to navigate academic and social situations with the help of fellow students.

Students on Autism Spectrum Increasing on College Campuses

“There is a dramatic increase in students with autism spectrum disorders graduating from high school and coming on to college,” Schelly said. “These students are typically very bright and capable, but in many cases, their challenges with relationships, communication, socialization and the everyday occurrences that happen on a college campus, in college classrooms and in a typical day for a college student are overwhelming and difficult for them to handle. Through this recent grant, we will help these students adjust to and thrive in college. 

“Of equal importance, we will help the college campus – employees and students – understand how they can best support, encourage and accept students with autism spectrum disorders. And we will work with high school instructors, counselors and parents as they help prepare these students transition to college.”

The grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education funds Opportunities for Postsecondary Success, called the OPS project, through the Center for Community Partnerships. The center is a direct service and outreach arm of the Department of Occupational Therapy. 

Mentor Relationships Help Navigate Challenges

OPS pairs students with disabilities who want assistance with other CSU students who serve as peer mentors. The mentors spend 30 to 40 hours per semester with students enrolled in the program, helping them navigate nearly any challenge that is holding them back from academic success – time management, study skills, compensatory strategies, career exploration, effective communication, forming relationships and learning to advocate for themselves in the educational setting.

Student mentors will be coached by the Center for Community Partnerships.

“Many students with these disabilities are lonely – on a campus full of people,” Schelly said. “Based on our experiences, once participating students with disabilities receive intensive support and guidance through this program in their early college years, most will ultimately become independent in all aspects of their lives and experience success as a college student.”

Schelly anticipates that students will use their mentors for learning where and how to study, connecting with campus and community resources, organizing their study spaces and rooms in a way that works for them, meeting other students, participating in college and community activities, and forming friendships. Mentors may even attend classes with students enrolled in the program to help them through the social and communications processes.   

Front Range Community College students and Poudre School District students who will enroll at Front Range or CSU can participate in the program at their schools. CSU students with disabilities get connected to the program through CSU’s Resources for Disabled Students and the Division of Student Affairs. Front Range students can access it through that college’s Student Disability Office.

“There is no doubt that if we put the right supports in place, these students can be successful,” Schelly said. “In fact, I highly expect that, with the right support systems in place, the majority of participating students will graduate from college and go on to have successful careers.”

Autism Spectrum Disorders Symposium Meets Needs, Stimulates Discussion

The university’s first Autism Spectrum Disorders Symposium will be held March 23-24. The symposium is focused on meeting the unique needs of students with autism spectrum disorders in the higher education environment and to stimulate the discussion about a national issue of growing importance on college campuses. Rose Kreston, director of the RDS office, is also a co-principal investigator on the OPS grant.

For more information about the symposium, which will feature a keynote address by Temple Grandin, visit Grandin, a CSU professor, renowned designer of humane animal-handling facilities and autistic person, will use her own experiences as a guide for her keynote address about finding the right job for people on the autism spectrum.

The symposium is primarily being planned by the university’s Resources for Disabled Students staff and includes a committee of offices from across the university. The committee planning the symposium includes representatives from the university’s President’s Office, Center for Community Partnerships, CSU Health Network, the School of Social Work, Vice President of Student Affairs Office and Residential Life.

For more information about the OPS program, visit the website.

The Department of Occupational Therapy is in the College of Applied Human Sciences.

Contact: Dell Rae Moellenberg
Phone: 970-491-6009