Mercyhurst expands effort to educate students with Asperger Syndrome

The transition to college is stressful for any teenager, but for those with Asperger Syndrome (AS) the adjustment is even more daunting. Asperger Syndrome is characterized by severely impaired social and communication skills. Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger first described the syndrome that now bears his name in the 1940s. He noticed a number of children, primarily boys, who had normal intelligence and language development but severely impaired social skills. Other characteristics often associated with Asperger Syndrome are the pursuit of specific and narrow areas of interest, an inability to communicate effectively with others, difficulty reading body language and facial expressions, poor coordination, and unusual sensitivity to sensory stimuli.

Thanks to early diagnosis and therapy, more and more students with such autism spectrum disorders are entering colleges, challenging schools to find ways to help them thrive in the college environment. Mercyhurst College is among the first schools in the region to specifically address the needs of students with Asperger Syndrome, operating a pilot program during 2008-09 for four students with Asperger Syndrome. These students have excelled in a number of academic venues this year, including one student who was inducted into Phi Eta Sigma National Honorary Society and will likely be named to the Dean’s List.

The college is now ready to gradually expand its effort, according to Dianne Rogers, director of Mercyhurst’s Learning Differences Program, which has been recognized as a benchmark program for students with learning disabilities since its founding 25 years ago. Rogers has coordinated with staff from Residence Life and with students and staff members from the Marriage and Family Studies department in this endeavor to encourage the successful integration of AS students to the campus community.

Students enrolled in the Asperger Support Program at Mercyhurst will have access to many special academic and social supports. On the academic side, these include a unique summer program to prepare them for freshman year, individualized course planning assistance, and weekly meetings with staff members to monitor progress and develop study and scheduling skills. If needed, students can request tutors, note takers and other accommodations provided by the Learning Differences office.

 Living and learning on a college campus can be a social challenge for students with Asperger Syndrome as well. Mercyhurst’s program will offer an Asperger Advisory Group and Peer Mentoring Program assisted by Marriage and Family studies students and staff, priority for single rooms in the college’s residence halls, mediation with faculty and staff when required, training on interpersonal skills, and a variety of social events.

For information about the Asperger Support Program at Mercyhurst, contact Dianne Rogers at (814) 824-2450. Candidates must meet the academic standards for admission to Mercyhurst and provide documentation of their diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. There is an additional charge for the services of the Asperger Support Program.
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