Building a Summer Transition Program for Autistic College Students That Has Replicable Benefits: A Participatory-Action Model
As more autistic students enter college, many face difficulties with self-advocacy, social interaction, and self-regulation (Gelbar et al., 2014; Van Hees et al., 2014). Few specialized supports are available for autistic college students (Barnhill, 2014). We used a participatory-action design to develop a summer transition program for incoming autistic college students. Participation in our first week-long program was associated with improvements in self-reported autism symptoms and anxiety (Oral presentation; IMFAR 2014). After adapting the curriculum using feedback from autistic and non-autistic students, we ran a second transition program in 2015 to determine if findings from the first program replicated.
1. Determine if autistic symptoms are more closely related to other challenges than intelligence (as they were in the first program);
2. Compare self-reported and parent-reported symptoms;
3. Evaluate benefits of participating in our second program.
We developed a curriculum manual by revising materials from our first program to increase multimodal learning opportunities and assess fidelity more effectively. Through focus groups and individualized meetings, autistic and non-autistic students from our mentorship program helped adapt the curriculum.
Ten students (2 women) enrolled in a free week-long transition program (3 were in high school). All students self-identified as autistic, exceeded the parent-reported SRS cut-off for autism, and provided IEP documentation of disability (2 IEPs did not specify a diagnosis). Doctoral students led programming while undergraduate mentors (2 with a documented ASD and 4 without) helped model effective behaviors.
Pre-/Post-tests assessed autism symptoms (SRS-2; Constantino & Gruber, 2012), anxiety (Spielberger et al., 1983), autism knowledge (Gillespie-Lynch et al., 2014), disability identity (Darling, & Heckert, 2010), and academic self-efficacy (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 2005), and included interviews and role-plays. Nonverbal intelligence was assessed with the TONI (Brown et al., 1997).
Autism symptoms positively correlated with orientation towards the social model (p=.008), but were unrelated to other measures. Nonverbal intelligence negatively correlated with trait anxiety (p=.025) and perceived support from friends (p=.033). Parental reports of participants’ autism symptoms (M=95.3, SD=23.0) were higher than participants’ self-reports (M=67.0, SD=28.1, p=.024).
Participation in the program was associated with decreased self-reported autism symptoms (p=.05) and increased autism knowledge (p=.012). Participants reported that they enjoyed meeting people, practicing social and self-advocacy skills, and learning college-related skills. One said, “it made me aware about other people with disabilities have a voice.” Another said, “I really liked how I got to learn things that will prepare me for the future in college.” Autistic mentors enjoyed meeting participants and sharing their self-knowledge with them.
Conclusions: Associations between symptoms, intelligence, and challenges were different in the current sample (which had higher average intelligence) relative to our first program. Improvements in symptoms replicated from the first program (wherein a trend was observed) to the second. Reduced anxiety did not replicate in the current program, but improvements in autism knowledge, which is essential for self-advocacy, were apparent during this program. Findings suggest that programming has replicable benefits that should be evaluated in larger samples.