Fairfield is developing new transition programs to help young adults with autism prepare for college life.

Fairfield is developing new transition programs to help young adults with autism prepare for college life.

Special Olympics gold medalist in bowling, C.J. Enwright has that gift of making you feel like the only person in the room. His magnetic personality is like a force field. Without missing a beat, C.J. can carry on multiple, one-on-one conversations with his classmates, while listening attentively to his teacher’s every word.

But C.J. Enwright and other college-ready young men and women with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face unique challenges during the time in their lives when they are transitioning to independence and weighing their options after high school.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” Students with high-functioning autism may have the academic ability to succeed but need support to address a multitude of social challenges, independent living skills, and self-advocacy.

Fairfield University’s Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP) has spearheaded a new program to address these challenges by preparing students on the autism spectrum for the transition to college and adult life. Enwright was one of a dozen students, ages 18-21 with ASD, who participated in the groundbreaking fundamental transition training program launched last semester at Fairfield.

A team comprised of Alyson Martin, EdD, of Fairfield University’s Special Education Department, graduate students, and senior staff of the Trumbull, Connecticut-based Kennedy Center, developed the project called Transition Opportunities for Postsecondary Success (TOPS). The two-year project aims to explore a new transition paradigm for young adults ages 18-21 with ASD in the greater Bridgeport area.

In the U.S. approximately 1 in every 68 children receives a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (CDC, 2016), which translates to roughly 2,400 high school students in the state of Connecticut.

Children with developmental disabilities such as autism are guaranteed an education under federal law until they reach the age of 21. Once they turn 21, those students lose that support structure with no state or federal assistance to replace it. It is estimated that over the next decade, approximately 500,000 young adults on the autism spectrum will age out of publicly funded programs that are available to children and adolescents.

Said Dr. Martin: “How do we make it work for them? Do they get a job with supports and services? Do they try and attend a college or university with supports and services?”

One of the reasons for launching the TOPS program, Dr. Martin explained, was to give students with ASD exposure to what a university setting looks like and feels like.

“Many of these students have heard the word ‘college,’ yet have never seen one. Nor do they know what college means. They know it’s school after high school, but what does it look like, what does it feel like, how big is it, and can they do it?” Dr. Martin said. “They need information to be able to make educated decisions about their future.”

The program comes at a crucial time for college-ready students with ASD due to recent state budget cuts for transitional services.

The 10-week TOPS program featured weekly sessions focused on target skills related to communication, decision-making, time management, personal safety, and getting around campus. Each session was designed to help participants build confidence and manage anxiety in new situations.

The students in the program learned about money management and ordering meals by dining at the Stag Snack Bar in the Barone Campus Center. A session at Fairfield’s Nyselius-Dimenna Library taught students about the differences between a public library and a university library. They learned how to navigate the stacks, find and check out books, and where to go for reference help.

Other highlights of the program were tours of the University’s RecPlex, the Fairfield University Art Museum, the Zen Garden, and Campus Bookstore.

Dr. Martin considers the pilot program a success, given the skills the students learned and the positive exposure they received. “Students formed somewhat of a social group on our campus and they felt safe here and had the social tools to be able to navigate some aspects of it.”

“Nothing can teach us more than real life experiences,” Dr. Martin said, referring to her graduate students’ field work. “This is so much more than what I can teach them through a lecture or a PowerPoint. This is real life. This is real teaching.”

Dr. Martin hopes to grow the program and build a model that other colleges and universities can use. TOPS’ second run began this spring semester on February 1, with 12 students participating, many continuing the program from last semester, including C.J. Enwright.

“If you try hard enough you never know what you can accomplish,” Enwright said, reflecting back on his experience with TOPS and looking forward to “more adventures with friends” this spring.