By Chad Kebrdle
DONALDSON – Ancilla College is pushing the boundaries again to provide education to a population who often goes ignored after high school thanks to a $20,200 grant from the Ball Brothers Venture Fund through Independent Colleges of Indiana (ICI).
“A rising number of births have some phase of autism, yet there are very few programs in the U.S. for Asperger’s students after high school, despite the fact that many are very gifted,” said Ancilla President Dr. Ken Zirkle. “We have a perfect setting for a program such as this. This program will give another segment of the population the opportunity to become even more productive citizens.”
Ancilla College is one of four schools sharing a $75,000 grant for various projects. Of the four schools, Ancilla is the only one using its portion on a program to serve Asperger’s students. The college will train staff and begin development of a web-based resource for college-ready students on the spectrum to share with faculty and staff at other ICI campuses.
The grant is the first step in Ancilla’s long-term plan to create an on-campus center for autism education. Plans for the center include life skills training and college-level classes for high school graduates on the spectrum.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children born in the United States are diagnosed with some type of autism spectrum disorder. “This is a highly complex disorder that spans a spectrum from severe to those who are high functioning and, with support, can lead highly productive lives,” said Jim Riley, Ancilla Autism Spectrum Program representative.
“Unfortunately, there are few programs for such individuals once they have graduated from high school,” Riley said.
Now, thanks to the grant, that may soon change.
Representatives from Lighthouse Autism Center, a Northern Indiana organization supporting families with autistic children, said this grant is a much-needed first step for Indiana.
“Ancilla College is truly leading by example and setting a standard for all colleges and universities through the creation of their Asperger’s program. Students with Asperger’s, autism and other special needs often require extra support whether it’s academically or in other areas such as social and life skills. All students should be afforded the same opportunity to receive a college education, and Ancilla is helping to make that possible for all students of all abilities,” said Lighthouse Executive Director Gregg Maggioli and Clinical Director Leila Allen of Lighthouse in a written statement.
“As an organization that works with young children who have autism, we often consider what the future will hold for them. Our ultimate goal is a successful transition back to school, but even when children do return to school, they still sometimes struggle with things like self-help skills, staying on task, or meeting new people – making enrollment in college seem like an impossible task. Ancilla College, however, is breaking down those barriers, making what might not have been possible for many special needs students, possible. Lighthouse Autism Center is excited to support this program by acting as advisors and offering diverse perspectives,” they wrote. “We commend the work of Ancilla College made possible through the Ball Fund Award.” they wrote.
According to the National Autism Indicators Report of 2015, only 36 percent of young adults diagnosed with autism ever attend college or vocational-technical schools. In August of 2015, Lighthouse opened its doors to serve the need for autism therapy services for pre-college students in the surrounding area because of the indicated high demand for programs to serve Asperger’s students on the college level. Ancilla is hoping to fulfill those demands.
The second component of the project will involve the creation of a web-based resource for Ancilla College faculty and staff as well as ICI member institutions. This resource will include such elements as strategies for planning in-class communication programs for faculty, including situational communication, and research in enhancing social interaction/talent development. While there are some online resources available for colleges and universities, those resources are limited.
Riley said, “Ancilla College is perfectly positioned to provide this program tailored to the needs and abilities of those who have what has been known as Asperger’s Syndrome.”
On-campus training for faculty and staff will involve local, regional and national experts on Autism Spectrum Disorder with an emphasis on Asperger’s Syndrome. Project steering committee members will be involved in a visitation trip to the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM) University in Erie, Pennsylvania. Mercyhurst is noted as a model educational program for those with Asperger’s.
“The primary focus for the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM) has been to provide quality resources to a growing population of adults on the spectrum and to replicate these services to ensure that as many individuals as possible gain access and skills, live independently and obtain meaningful employment. We are excited about the work and program developing at Ancilla College and are looking forward to any collaboration to support the success of this endeavor,” said Brad McGarry, director of the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst.