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What Does It Mean to Be an Autism-Supportive Online College?

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Leah Zitter

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July 16,2021

Accessibility specialists tailor online courses for people on the autism spectrum along one of two treatment plans: through Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) or the strengths-based approach.

Practitioners of either model could point to reports that assert the superiority of their approach for educating students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Various recent journal reports, for example, suggest that strengths-based education is superior, while the Autism Science Foundation (for one) considers ABA to be today’s most effective treatment for autism.

But these two models could not be more different. Here’s a look at how two different autism-supportive colleges — Bellevue College, and SUNY Empire State College — support students during online learning, and what IT departments need to understand when they encounter students with autism who are experiencing tech problems in their online learning environment.


A Tale of Two Treatment Models for Autism-Supportive Colleges
A year after her 11-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, Sara Sanders Gardner discovered she’d been autistic all along. Now it all made sense, the wild ups and downs of her life at four different colleges. She started the Neurodiversity Navigators program at Bellevue in 2010, using the strengths-based approach to help offline and online autistic students navigate the academic and social challenges of college.

More recently, SUNY and the Anderson Center for Autism school in New York touted a first-of-its-kind autism-supportive college in a field of more than 30 top colleges for students with autism. SUNY’s initiative will provide educational support and conduct research to better serve individuals with autism throughout the entire college.

SUNY’s program also claims to be the first to serve college students with autism in a remote environment. For autistic students, there will be no self disclosure. Rather, the program will embed universal support for students on the spectrum — such as teaching faculty how to write clear rubrics and syllabi — into the curriculum. The college will launch a master’s degree program in ABA in Spring 2022.

ABA uses behavioral principles to set goals, reinforce behavior and measure results. It offers a raft of interventions, has been consistently supported by peer-reviewed studies and is widely used — although, not without controversy. Critics say it puts too much focus on getting people to engage in “typical” behaviors.

“We’re aware of the controversy,” says Noor Syed, founding director of SUNY’s Center for Autism Inclusivity. “For that reason, we are [also] building an autistic supportive college through a multitiered system of supports. Our goal is to make this program compassionate, while our master’s program uses the ABA foundation for research … that suggests the best ways forward for improvement.”

To effectively help students with autism who encounter technology issues during online or hybrid learning, SUNY’s IT department will receive training on topics such as common autism co-diagnoses (anxiety is one), and effective communication practices such as visual aids.

The strengths-based model, which is humanistic rather than scientific, focuses on the individual’s strengths (including their personal strengths, as well as social and community networks). It works with individuals to help them overcome their unique barriers.

“We seek to empower our students rather than to change or fix them,” says Sanders Gardner. “We embrace their strengths and give them access to what they lack. We train our faculty — which includes our IT leadership team — to work with the individual to accept them as they are and to promote their well-being.”

SUNY and Bellevue: Strengths-Based Model and ABA in Practice
Here’s how each institution would use its particular treatment plan.

SUNY/ Anderson Autism Supportive College:

SUNY bases its program on iterative research. The university ran eight focus groups and 20 interviews to assess autistic students’ needs. This evidence-based approach will be used throughout the initiative.

“Questions include: Is our training successful? Is our mentorship helpful? At the same time, it’s a bottoms-up approach,” Syed says. “I can’t ideate because I’m not neurodiverse. I go to them [our autistic students and autistic alumni] for feedback. Then I say, let’s do all of that. Let’s assess it.”

Bellevue’s Neurodiversity Navigators Program:

“We use a threefold approach,” Sanders Gardner says. “We support our students, praising their strengths and job skills. Second, we help them find ways to remove their barriers, whether it’s college accommodation, workplace skills, social relationships and so forth. Finally, we help them with self-advocacy, where they learn to speak up for themselves and their interests.”

In a March 2021 co-authored paper on what they’d learned from their remote learning experiences, Sanders Gardner and her colleagues recommended that program leaders work individually with students to assess their needs and provide academic, mental health and socialization support.

Best Practices for IT Teams That Support Students with Autism
For IT team departments that support students with autism, it helps to keep the Cultural Iceberg concept in mind. When communicating with people on the spectrum, observers may see just the surface of the iceberg — only 10 percent of what that person meant to say.

“The best practices,” Sanders Gardner says, “are to answer their questions before asking specifics for clarification. Also, be as thorough and clear as possible when helping the student fix [technology] problems. Give them every single link needed. Focus on their requests, not the perceived tone of the request. It would also be good to put fixes in writing, using plain language. If you’re still uncertain whether you’ve understood them, turn to disability services or autism specialists on campus for help before proceeding.”

For ABA, all faculty and staff — including accessibility and IT specialists — receive training on understanding the impaired social interaction, limited communication and behavioral challenges of autism, as well as how to create task analyses and systems processing maps to break down instructions and steps into smaller, more manageable components.

“If a student encounters technical difficulty with online learning,” Syed says, “they can reach out to our IT support team via phone, email or ticket submission. The team is readily available and will work with the student to give them clear directions on how to proceed. Our IT colleagues will also receive training on how to support our autistic students.”

Ultimately, both modalities advocate a person-centered approach.

What’s the secret to an effective remote learning environment for students with ASD? Treat the person as a whole being, with the same needs, feelings and desires​ as anyone else.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the Neurodiversity Navigators program started in 2019. The program started in 2010. EdTech regrets the error.