Autism group aids teensWritten by Autumn Lee | | firstname.lastname@example.org
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2007 report, one in 150 children, aged 8 years in multiple areas of the United States, had an autism spectrum disorder.
Through its Hench Autism Studies Program (HASP), Defiance College is seeking to educate teens with autism, support their families and provide “best-practice education” to undergraduate and graduate students.
The program, launched fall of 2007, is addressing the need for “better and more integrated services for late adolescents with autism who are challenged by sensory issues, communication problems and interpersonal interactions,” according to a Defiance College spokesperson. In addition, HASP “will also work to provide services for families.”
Catharine O’Connell, P.hD., vice president for academic affairs, said, “At least as we can tell so far, there really aren’t a lot of people working with adolescents with autism.”
After initial meetings to discuss creating the autism program at Defiance College, O’Connell said they discovered they had people in different disciplines who had worked in special education, MRDD and other related areas.
“When we all got together, we found we had a fair amount of expertise in the room,” she said.
The program was created through a collaboration between Defiance College, area school districts (chiefly the Northwest Ohio Educational Service Center), Bittersweet Farms of Whitehouse, Ohio, and philanthropists Eric and Deb Hench, parents of a son with autism.
The “multi-faceted” program includes:
- A specialized on-campus, public high school classroom for late adolescents with autism
- A resource and referral center for families of children and adults with autism
- Specialized training for undergraduate students to have peer interaction with students with autism
- Focused coursework for undergraduate social work majors and additional training for licensed social workers
- A new licensure within the Master of Arts in Education Program for Intervention Specialist, Mild and Moderate K-12, with an emphasis in autism
Defiance resident Eric Hench, also a trustee for Defiance College, shared his frustrations about reaching the resources needed for his son, Jon, 19, while he was growing up.
Most of the therapists Jon needed were not available locally, Eric Hench said. He and his wife, Deb, had to make many trips to Toledo to meet the various needs of their son.
The constant traveling proved to be a “big-time investment,” as they sometimes went three times a week, he said.
Deb Hench said their son had “a lot of developmental delays,” which left him at a much younger age (about age 8) than his chronological age, despite the normal teenaged physiological changes he experienced.
His developmental age made it difficult for Jon to deal with the difference from his actual age when he was not maturing in his decision-making, knowing what not to say in certain situations and controlling his temper when he took things people said too literally, she said.
When their son was younger, she said services for individuals with autism were minimal, even those for children.
“Now that [Jon’s] older, there are even less services [available],” she said.
Eric Hench said Jon has become a resident at Bittersweet Farms (which offers residential and other services to people with autism) allowing for a “surprisingly smooth transition” from living at home. It is a place where Jon has “adapted very well.”
When developing the idea for HASP, Deb Hench said they wanted to provide “relief for parents so they could get a break.”
In addition to their proximity to Defiance College, Eric Hench said it was also the college’s mission to provide service learning that led them to discuss creating an autism program there.
He said he would like the program to bring students, who are pursuing teaching or other applicable career choices, “up to speed” when working with students with autism.
Another goal for the program includes setting up a resource center to help parents that have recently received an autism diagnosis for their child, Hench said.
“Hopefully, the center will be able to smooth the path for other parents,” Hench said, “… so it’s not such a ‘rocky road.’”
Wendy Nashu, a special education supervisor for the Northwest Ohio Educational Service Center, discussed the program’s public school classroom, which serves students with autism ages 15 years and older. The on-campus classroom has two students with a capacity for four additional students.
Nashu said the program is “a new approach in assisting students to transition into the larger community.”
She works with a team of professionals, including an occupational therapist, speech therapist, adaptive physical education teacher, psychologist, classroom teacher and a paraprofessional classroom aide.
Defiance College has provided them with “a safe environment to work in” and “has proven to be a great opportunity for the students [with autism],” who get to work with peer-aged students, Nashu said.
For instance, teachers and students in the HASP classroom have created a business, “Bumble Bean Coffee,” to sell coffee, beverages and baked goods on campus, which gives students with autism opportunities to develop business and communication skills, a Defiance College spokesperson said.
Defiance College freshman Alaina Hammond, who is involved in the program’s peer mentoring group, said they have met with students with autism to help them be better equipped in learning “unspoken rules” of communication.
“Earlier, in the class, we went to Bittersweet Farms, [where] we spent time helping out, met more individuals with autism and learned about the [different] severities of mental impairment,” Hammond said.
Some people with autism have minor mental impairment, Hammond explained, while others have more severe impairment and have difficulty speaking.
“Often, they are just different in the way they speak and reason,” she said. “… They think in pictures sometimes.”