AIM takes lead in autism awareness

Now in the second year of its groundbreaking support program for college students with Asperger Syndrome, Mercyhurst College will host several events during April to explore this challenging condition on the autism spectrum.

The college will host nationally known expert Dr. Jane Thierfeld Brown for three presentations April 8-9, and the school’s Guelcher Film Series will present “Adam,” a romantic comedy starring Hugh Dancy as a young man with Asperger Syndrome, on April 14, with a panel discussion to follow.

Brown will kick off Mercyhurst’s activities for Autism Awareness Month with a free public lecture titled “Students with Asperger Syndrome in Higher Education.” It’s scheduled for Thursday, April 8, at 7:15 p.m. in Walker Recital Hall (located in the Hirt Academic Center at Mercyhurst). The public is welcome and no reservations are needed.

The following day, Brown will deliver two targeted presentations. She’ll discuss “Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for High School Special Educators and Agency Personnel” on April 9 from 9 to 10:30 a.m., and “What Parents of Students with AS Need to Know about College” from 11 a.m. to noon. Reservations are required for these sessions; e-mail Lori Kaveney at lkaveney2@mercyhurst.edu.; phone, (814) 824-3017.

Jane Thierfeld Brown, who has worked in disability services for 29 years, is director of student services at the University of Connecticut School of Law. She earned a degree in speech pathology from the University of Rhode Island and, while working at URI as coordinator of disability services, went on to earn master’s degrees in counseling and education. She holds an Ed.D from Columbia University, Teachers College.

Brown's main research interests are students with Asperger Syndrome in higher education and students with disabilities in high-stakes graduate programs. She consults at many higher education institutions and is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences on Asperger Syndrome.

She and two colleagues combined their extensive experience to publish “Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel” in 2009. Their comprehensive book offers practical strategies for accommodating and supporting students in all phases of college life, with chapters that address everything from academic accommodations to housing and residence life issues to working with parents.

Awareness and diagnosis of autism and Asperger Syndrome have increased dramatically over the past two decades, Brown points out, with officials estimating that one in 150 children has an autism spectrum disorder. The number of college students with Asperger is increasing as these children reach college age.

“Many students with Asperger’s are very high functioning and therefore likely to go to college,” Brown says. Her book and talks are designed to help colleges and universities prepare to teach and support this unique population so they can succeed in college and beyond.

Mercyhurst launched its program, now known as the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM), in fall 2008, and several months ago learned that Congress had approved $100,000 in federal funding to support the initiative.

Mercyhurst will follow Brown’s visit with a showing of “Adam,” which won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. The movie recounts the relationship between Beth (Rose Byrne), a brainy, beautiful writer who’s been damaged by a past relationship, and her neighbor Adam (Dancy), a handsome, but odd, fellow whose awkwardness is perplexing.

The film will be shown in the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center at 2:15 p.m. and again at 7:15 p.m. Agencies that serve clients with autism will provide information in the PAC lobby before and after both showings.

Following the evening screening, several professionals who deal with Asperger Syndrome will share their perspectives on the film. Panelists will include Dr. Eileen McNamara, medical director of the Adult Autism Connection of the Barber National Institute; Dr. Joseph McAllister, director of psychological services at Pittsburgh’s Watson Institute; and clinical psychologist Janet Pawlowski , founder of KaleidAScope, Inc., which serves those 15 years and older with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Dianne Rogers, director of Mercyhurst’s Learning Differences Program, will moderate.

Admission to the film is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, $4 for President’s Cardholders, and free for Mercyhurst students. Tickets will be available at the door, or call 824-3000.

For more information about the programs with Dr. Brown or about the Asperger Initiativer at Mercyhurst (AIM), contact Lori Kaveney in Mercyhurst’s Learning Differences Program, 824-3017. For information about the film “Adam,” call the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center at 824-3000.
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