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Researcher seeks to improve college experience for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

BLACKSBURG, Va. – With a growing number of people being diagnosed with Autism, the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research, affiliated with the College of Science, is breaking new ground in helping those who have the condition succeed in what is for anyone, a new, challenging, and often difficult environment – college.

With a $666,000 grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health, Susan White, associate professor of psychology and co-director of the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic, has been working many years to make Virginia Tech the most Autism friendly campus in America.

“Members of the Department of Psychology and the staff of the Services for Students with Disabilities office have been working for about six years now providing free support groups for students, staff and faculty,” she said. “We’re getting closer and it needs to include more than just the students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), it needs to include everyone and permeate the institutional climate to go beyond tolerance and toward embracing differences and building strengths so all students can meet their potential.”

White says the neurodiversity initiative won’t be easy as it will require working with families, providers, and students to tap into the capacity of Virginia Tech to attract highly talented students.

“Autism isn’t like other disabilities in that there isn’t an easily identifiable instrument, such as a wheelchair ramp, that triggers people to think about access for those with disabilities,” White said. “Autistic people are often thought of as just shy, or introverted, so it’s easy to overlook there are real challenges.”

Emotional regulation and poor time management skills are just two of the issues White helps ASD students work with, but in some ways it’s not the most limiting. 

“Many ASD patients have not developed the self-advocacy skills necessary for voicing their needs and standing up for accommodations to help them succeed,” she said. “We’re helping provide that voice.”

To give volume to that voice, White’s research is creating a formalized, repeatable transition program for students coming from secondary school to the university level. 

“There are a handful of programs to bring ASD students into the college life,” White says, “but there is limited or no empirical basis for what really works to help these students. We’re hoping to not only develop a good program, but also determine what really works in this regard.”

White and her team are looking at a three year project with phase one, which began this month, involving data collection, focus groups and an advisory panel to inform critical elements of the program. 

The second phase, which will take up the majority of the time will involve implementation with participants receiving help as offered currently, or the Stepped Transition in Education Program for Students with ASD, or STEPS, which was piloted in 2013. A paper on the outcome is currently in review.

Enrollment will start in March 2015 and White hopes to eventually have 60 students in the program.

“This is a three-pronged program where we’re supporting the students, their parents, and educators at the secondary and post-secondary levels with on-site training, web-based training, and on campus immersion experiences for students and parents,” White said.

The College of Science at Virginia Tech gives students a comprehensive foundation in the scientific method. Outstanding faculty members teach courses and conduct research in biological sciences, chemistry, economics, geosciences, mathematics, physics, psychology, and statistics. The college offers programs in cutting-edge areas including, among others, those in energy and the environment, developmental science across the lifespan, infectious diseases, computational science, nanoscience, and neuroscience. The College of Science is dedicated to fostering a research-intensive environment that promotes scientific inquiry and outreach.



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