College Students Struggling with Autism Spectrum Disorder- An Interview with Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a group of developmental disorders that affects the individual’s ability to function socially. This can be a problem for students with ASD that come to college as their low social life negatively affects their academic life. In “Increasing social integration for college students with autism spectrum disorder.” by Lynn Kern Koegel , Robert L Koegel, and Kristen Ashbaugh looks at how social intervention can help students with ASD do better in college.

1. Could you touch a bit on what the research is about for our audience who maybe learning about it for the first time?

This specific research has been focused on helping college students with ASD succeed. Most disabled student programs offer support for academics but offer little or nothing in regard to specialized social support that is needed for students on the autism spectrum. This results in many students with ASD dropping out and/or experiencing depression and anxiety. College students with ASD are often very bright academically, but find socialization challenging.

2. How do you think social intervention would help students with autism spectrum disorder adjust better in college?

We have developed a comprehensive program that involves one-on-one individualized intervention for improving social areas in addition to pairing up each student with a peer mentor (a similarly-aged student) who attends at least 3 social activities a week. The peer mentor is able to help with areas that need attention during the one-on-one sessions while also providing support during the social outings. We also involve some choice by having the student with ASD choose what clubs and activities he or she would like to attend. Choosing activities around their interests increase the likelihood of success, in addition to providing an environment where the student with ASD is often quite competent and a valued member of the group.

Other individualized areas that we may target, depending on student need, are leaving appropriate texts and phone messages, greetings, time management, promptness, hygiene, healthy eating, study habits, and so on.

3. In your study the participants only had mild autism, do you think the social intervention would help people that have higher levels of autism?

In other studies we have worked with individuals who have greater support needs. We have published many studies showing that involving individuals with all levels of ASD in clubs around their specific interests can be helpful in improving social interaction for individuals who have mild support needs and also those who have greater needs, including nonverbal individuals with ASD. We have published many studies showing the success of these clubs or group activities in elementary school through college. Often times the student with ASD is the most valued member of the club since they are highly motivated to participate and may have accumulated a vast amount of information around the particular subject. We’ve started just about every club you can imagine including a yo-yo club, Simpsons, physics, science, inventors, juggling, cooking, cartoon, a leggo club for a child that repetitively played with door hinges, and many more. However, it is important that these clubs are closely monitored so that social interaction can be facilitated. Individuals with ASD are often bullied at school and socially isolated. Teaching and prompting appropriate social interactions can be helpful for all the students attending.

4. Do you think the amount of social activities before intervention make a difference to how effective the social intervention will be?

Yes. Definitely. Some individuals on the spectrum have received intervention in the past and therefore are capable of finding their own social activities and don’t require much support. The students that participate in our research find socialization challenging and request help. In fact, when we help our students with ASD find social activities we give them the choice of attending with a peer mentor or alone and all have chosen to attend with a peer mentor.

5. How long do you think social intervention should be provided to each student?

We like to provide intervention for as long as the student needs support. For some students it is the entire 4 years they are in college. For other students they just need a little support before they are able to make friends and plan and attend social events on their own.

6. What steps so you think should be taken by college campuses to help students with autism spectrum disorder?

There is a rapidly increasing number of college students with ASD. In order to help these students succeed colleges need to develop programs to meet those needs. Colleges will require training in order to accomplish this. There also needs to be training for support individuals in real life situations. Peer mentors, who are trained, will be necessary as well. Simply having a club without trained staff in multiple everyday settings, will not be enough. Our research found that when we addressed their social needs in a comprehensive way their grades improve, more secure employment, and they report greater self-confidence and happiness in college. Also, we provided course credits for peer mentors making the program cost effective.

7. Where are the studies at the moment and where do you anticipate findings going in the next year or so?

We are continuing to focus on involving the whole community in order to make college a successful experience. Three of the authors on this study have just moved to Stanford University and Stanford is very interested in supporting the adult population so we are anticipating that we will be able to continue with this research. Some colleges and universities are beginning to provide social support, but there is still a need for more research and programs in this area.

8. Do you have any additional resources or further readings for those who want to learn more about the topic?

Our book “Growing up on the Spectrum” that I wrote with parent Claire LaZebnik addresses adult issues. Our new Pivotal Response Treatment book coming out in 2018 by Koegel and Koegel (published by Paul H. Brookes) will also have step-by-step procedures for working with adolescents, college students, and adults.

The research done shows that providing social intervention can help students with ASD accomplish a lot more in college. I believe that colleges need to start providing these services to students with ASD to help them reach their main potential.

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