Ancilla College sponsored a statewide conference on February 17 at Swan Lake near Plymouth, Indiana for training institutional representatives to provide an effective learning environment for individuals on the high end of the autism spectrum. The major speakers were Brad McGarry, Director of the Autism Initiative/Mercyhurst University and Paulina Weilsandt, Assistant Director. Mercyhurst University has a nationally recognized program for serving college students on the autism spectrum.
Support for the training program has been provided by the Ball Ventures Fund in collaboration with the Independent Colleges of Indiana (ICI). Over 100 higher education, governmental and non-profit agency representatives participated in the Fall and Spring workshops, representing 25 organizations across the state.
Ancilla College Autism Initiative
Coordination and planning for the Ancilla College Autism Initiative involved members of the Ancilla College Autism Initiative advisory board coordinated by Dr. Beth Sweitzer-Riley and Dr. James D. Riley. The advisory board includes Ancilla College representatives, Sisters of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ of the Ancilla System, agency representatives and members of the local and regional community.
Dr. Ken Zirkle, President of Ancilla College, states that “The Ancilla College Autism Initiative is one of the most important programs for the college. We are deeply committed to serving as a resource for higher education institutions in the state and to provide opportunity for success for students on the high end of the autism spectrum. It has become a moral obligation for us. . .It matches our mission to serve the capable but underserved.”
The training program is part of a larger Ancilla College initiative which has a threefold purpose as expressed by the advisory board:
- Purpose 1-to build a model program for training faculty and staff in how to provide an effective campus-wide environment to foster a successful college experience for students on the high end of the autism spectrum
- Purpose 2-to serve as a focused resource for institutions of higher education on autism issues, emerging strategies, news, strategic planning and collaborative projects
- Purpose 3-to develop a funding and financial structure for the long term sustainability of robust support resources for serving students, including full time administration, counseling and instructional resources based on best practices in the field
Autism affects at least 1 in 68 births across the nation, according to estimates by the Center for Disease Control. Across the country, there is a slowly increasing emphasis on developing such programs. However, there are currently no systematic and broadly available programs beyond high school. Most individuals on the high end of the autism spectrum with access to appropriate support programs can emerge from these programs as highly productive citizens. The cost to families and to society can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars without such programs.
Symptoms of autism are complex and varied across individuals. However, the symptoms tend to fall into three major areas. First, symptoms appear as a chronic inability to engage in social interaction. An example can be reflected in even the simple phrase “How are you?” which may be interpreted as a rude rather than a friendly greeting. Second, they may appear as a chronic inability to understand the emotions of others which can be devastating in most social and workplace situations. Third, nearly all individuals with autism experience extreme sensitivity to sounds, light and even odors. As an example, one individual described the normal sounds of workplace settings as “being inside of a boom box.” The effect of these symptoms, if left unresolved is devastating.
According to some estimates, 85% of academically capable high school students on the high end of the spectrum do not progress any further. With appropriate support programs, most of these students can be successful in college.
By providing a comprehensive and model program to serve students on the high end of the autism spectrum, Ancilla College can enhance such students’ ability to succeed in college and lead highly productive lives. By serving as a resource to other colleges and institutions, Ancilla College can contribute to the creation of a systematic effort to address the issue of serving students on the high end of the spectrum.
Ancilla College, founded in 1937, is a small, private, liberal arts school offering associate degrees in over two dozen academic programs and intercollegiate athletics at their campus near Plymouth, Indiana. Ancilla is a sponsored ministry of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, part of the Center at Donaldson.