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Students on autism spectrum take college for test drive at Mercyhurst

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Two dozen young people will arrive at Mercyhurst this week for the university’s Foundations Program, widely regarded as the nation’s top college-readiness program for students on the autism spectrum.

Sponsored by the Asperger Institute at Mercyhurst (AIM), Foundations is a three-week residential program designed to determine whether students are ready to tackle college studies and to foster skills they’ll need to succeed in the college environment.

Brad McGarry, M.A., director of AIM, and his staff of 18 provide nearly one-to-one attention for participants. Besides supervisors for residential life, education and behavioral issues, 15 specially trained peer mentors will work closely with the students. Most of the mentors are Mercyhurst graduate and undergraduate students – including two who completed the Foundations Program themselves in previous years.

The Foundations participants will come from all over the country, including California, New Mexico and New Jersey. They must have finished their junior year in high school, but some are high school graduates or older.

From July 12 through Aug. 2, they will live with roommates in a college dorm, eat in the college dining hall, practice social skills in daily workshops and enjoy social activities on and off campus. In addition, they’ll earn three college credits by completing History 101, American History through 1865. The class will put special focus on the War of 1812 and the Battle of Lake Erie, including trips to local historical sites. Also on the schedule is a mini-lecture series by some of Mercyhurst’s top faculty members.

McGarry says demand for the summer program has grown steadily since it was first offered in 2010. With limited space available, Foundations could accept fewer than half the students who applied this year. To determine which young people are best suited for the program, he uses an assessment tool he devised that measures how students perform on the AISE Domains – Academic social progress, Independence, Socialization, and Emotion.

Many students with Asperger Syndrome can handle college-level academics, but face challenges in social interactions and executive functioning. Activities during Foundations address those challenges, as well as individual behavioral goals set for each student by their families and the AIM staff.

At the close of the program, students are evaluated again and parents receive a full report, including what McGarry calls an “AIM GPA.” It takes into account not only how well students did in the classroom, but how they performed on the AISE domains, everything from managing their own medications and hygiene to dealing with anger and frustration.

Mercyhurst, which has been educating students with learning disabilities through its Learning Differences Program since 1986, introduced a four-year college program for students with Asperger Syndrome in 2008. It has become widely respected in the years since, and has been featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Autism Asperger Digest, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

McGarry testified about autism before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, and AIM was featured as a model program at Pennsylvania’s Inaugural Conference on Post-Secondary Programs for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. AIM was also ranked third in the nation among Impressive Special College Programs for Students with Autism.

Earlier this year, McGarry joined representatives of five other top university autism programs at a symposium at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The group has compiled a manual on autism education that will be published later this year by Autism Speaks. McGarry’s contributions highlighted the AISE assessment tool, the Foundations summer program, and the individualized social skills modules provided to AIM students during the school year.

For more information about the Foundations Program, visit