A Brief History of the Origin of the Program and Why the Program Was Established

In Consideration of a Comprehensive Program at Ancilla College for Capable Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

In early discussions regarding the establishment of a program to assist those with ASD, this “white paper” was developed to provide information to the Ancilla College community and beyond.  We briefly review the following: characteristics of ASD; diagnosis of ASD, educational programs, the origins of the “Asperger” designation; a summary of existing college programs at four year institutions and a brief summary of data on ASD. This white paper describes the rationale for establishing APAC designed to serve capable college students with ASD.


Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Those with ASD exhibit the following:

  • Difficulty with social interactions, from mild to severe
  • Repetitive speech, often unrelated to the social context
  • Inability to empathize
  • Inability to understand nonverbal communication, from mild to severe
  • Focus on self, from mild to severe
  • Lack of eye contact or logical verbal communication, from mild to severe
  • Perseveration on unique interests/topics
  • Awkward movements or mannerisms, from mild to severe

Children with autism may also have accompanying learning problems and receive special education services, when autism is diagnosed.

The Diagnosis of ASD-Issues and Features

Diagnosis of ASD has the following contextual elements:

  • ASD often remains undiagnosed until the individual has other difficulties in school
  • Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder may receive their diagnosis when seeking help for related issues such as anxiety or depression
  • When diagnosed, the focus is usually on difficulties with social interactions
  • Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder may have exceptional language development
  • Use of language skills may tend to be inappropriate, illogical or awkward
  • Symptoms of ASD are often confused with ADHD
  • Those with ASD tend
    • To have difficulty seeing things from another point of view
    • To resist discussing anything other than their own specialized interests
    • To not realize others are not listening
    • To not understand intent behind others’ communication
  • Other features of communication difficulty
    • Unusual intonation
    • Loud speech inappropriate for social context
    • Crying or laughing inappropriate for the social context
  • Sensory overload may also be present for many diagnosed with ASD
    • Difficulty concentrating in certain noise environment
    • Specific sensory hyper-sensitivity which interferes with communication and normal brain function

Not all those with ASD show evidence of all of these symptoms.  There is a wide variance in how these symptoms are displayed across individuals-a variance which explains the difficulty in diagnosis.

Finally, those with ASD often display unusual skills such as an ability to engage with intense focus on a task. Ample evidence exists that some with ASD can learn communication and social interaction strategies using those gifts and lead productive and even high functioning lives.

Education and Programming

As with most conditions, there is no one best “treatment”.  The overall goal of the Autism Program at Ancilla College (APAC) is to create a supportive environment and assist those with ASD to enhance their ability to function effectively in social interactions, thereby maximizing their potential to learn and lead productive lives.

Critical features of educational programming include

  • Living facilities designed to enhance improvement in social interaction skills and minimize the effects of sensory overload
  • Knowledgeable instructors who can adjust instruction in key ways, e.g. repeating and reinforcing key ideas
  • Training of faculty and staff in how to support the overall goals for those with ASD
  • Tailored counseling which may focus on techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy or other strategies
  • Specialized group programs led by trained personnel
  • Tailored occupational and physical therapy

Additional medical treatment for, e.g. anxiety disorder and depression may also be an option

A Brief History of ASD and Asperger Syndrome

An Austrian pediatrician (Asperger) in 1944 worked extensively with four children who showed evidence of the following:

  • General social interaction difficulties
  • Lack of nonverbal communication skills
  • Lack of empathy with peers
  • Inappropriate speech patterns for the social context
    • “Broken” speech patterns
    • Overly formal speech patterns
  • Focus on narrow topics of interest

In 1981, an English physician, Lorna Wing published a series of case studies with like symptoms. Wing’s writings became well known in the 1990’s.  Recent historical research as detailed in a book entitled Neurotribes indicates that the condition now known as ASD may have been recognized much earlier.

Diagnosis of ASD is an imprecise art.  Certain features of the disorder may differ for those who exhibit high levels of functioning and Asperger’s-but the treatments and educational processes may be the same.

ASD also presents with a complex composite of physical, emotional, intellectual and neurological factors that differs with each individual.

Model Programs for Students with Autism

Currently, there are a number of programs to serve students with ASD:

  • Rutgers Developmental Disabilities Center
    • Residential choices
    • Asperger’s Disorder College Program services
      • Goal development
      • Team meetings
      • Guidance for socializing
      • Orientation to campus life
    • The Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM-Mercyhurst University)
      • Support in academic and social aspects
      • Group and individual support
      • Communication building
      • Systematic development of social skills
      • Key assessment tools
      • A bank of program development strategies
      • A comprehensive transition to college program

AIM is one of several national models for four year programs. AIM is one of the oldest and established programs for serving college students with ASD. (for further information, Google the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM))

  • Midwestern State University (Wichita Falls, Texas)
    • Counselor and peer support
    • Special living quarters with peer mentors
    • Staff and faculty support
  • St Joseph’s University (PA) Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support
    • Autism advocacy in the broader community
    • Campus awareness
    • Events and courses
  • Boston University Supported Education Services
    • Individualized assistance with building academic skills
    • Social interaction support
  • University of Alabama College Transition and Support Program
    • Improving study skills
    • Academic support
    • Support from faculty, clinical psychologists, graduate students
  • Eastern Michigan University Autism Collaborative Center
    • Comprehensive programming
    • Academic
    • Counseling
    • Nutrition Therapy
    • Community Outreach
  • University of Connecticut READ program
    • Family support
    • College transition support
    • Varied levels of support according to need
    • Weekly meetings
    • Materials and information
  • Marshall University Autism Training Center
    • Classroom support
    • Management of assignments
    • Socialization
    • Independent living support
    • Social activities

In the past several years, numerous other institutions have been in the process of establishing additional programs and services to serve students with ASD.

Data on the Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder

“Autism Spectrum Disorders is a group of developmental disabilities characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication and by restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior . . .The complex nature of these disorders, coupled with a lack of biologic markers for diagnosis and changes in clinical definitions over time, creates challenges in the (precise) monitoring of the prevalence of ASD.. . .Information (was) obtained from children’s evaluation records at any time from birth through the end of the year when a child reaches 8 years. . .” (CDC, 2012)

The CDC report indicates the following:

  • About 1 in 68 in the 2012 study (11 states) were identified with ASD or roughly 2% of the population (Emerging evidence may now indicate a higher incidence.)
  • The new estimate is 30% higher than four years before which could be the result of a greater awareness of the disorder
  • The number or percentage varies widely across communities
  • Nearly half had average or above average intellectual capability
  • Boys were nearly 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD
  • About 80% identified with ASD received special education services for autism but some were never diagnosed by a clinician but exhibited symptoms as recorded in the evaluation records used by the CDC


Creation of a comprehensive program will involve at least the following:

  • Modified facilities
  • A support infrastructure which includes highly trained personnel, e.g. program director, counsellors, general college personnel, etc.
  • Outreach to and collaboration with regional autism agencies and organizations
  • Training of all faculty and staff to assist them in creating an appropriate learning environment for future ASD students
  • A web-based learning and training resource
  • A sustainable funding initiative
  • Collaboration with other higher education institutions across the state and nation

Why has Ancilla College made such a strong commitment to the program?

  • While there are an increasing number of colleges developing or supporting such a program, the need is much greater than existing programs can serve
  • APAC (Autism Program at Ancilla College) provides a model program which can be adapted/adopted by other institutions across the state and beyond
  • The program can reflects the current and historical mission of the college
  • James D. Riley, Ph.D., Institutional Collaboration and Strategic Outreach, President’s Office, Ancilla CollegeBeth Sweitzer-Riley, Ph.D, Special Projects Coordinator, President’s Office, Ancilla CollegeSpring 2016, presented to faculty/staff at a campus-wide meetingRevised, October, 2017