REACHing Out To Students With Autism

April 26, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

CUNY has identified a burgeoning need to educate and support its rapidly growing number of students who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, and it hopes to become a national leader in providing a variety of higher education opportunities for these individuals.

In January, the private FAR Fund awarded the University a oneyear, $100,000 grant for a preliminary initiative called REACH: Resources and Education on Autism as CUNY’s Hallmark. The grant will “empower CUNY to develop a replicable programming model on its campuses” to support these students, whose disability is not only widespread but often widely misunderstood.

Autism, in its various manifestations is a neurobiological disorder, affecting an individual’s communication, social skills and executive functions such as organizing and planning abilities. Sometimes it limits the ability to control certain behaviors. Often individuals with autism are intelligent but unable to demonstrate what they know. Proper educational techniques can help enormously. Even those with lower cognitive skills could benefit from continuing education and professional programs offered by CUNY, if accommodations are made. In turn, they could use their education to contribute to society.

According to federal statistics one in 88 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and “ASD” students now make up one of the fastest-growing groups of college students nationwide.

University Assistant Dean Christopher Rosa says that while at CUNY there is “lots of good will” regarding these students, resources and expertise need to be vastly improved. He envisions a training faculty and staff — and identifying among students “those who might serve as mentors or coaches.” The grant was awarded in January, but Rosa was recently interviewed on the subject as the April commemoration of Autism Awareness Month – and CUNY Disability Month – approached.

Rosa says there are now 250 students throughout CUNY who have self-identified as having ASD. But he believes the number could be many times higher and growing. Alternately, he worries about the attrition rate among students on the spectrum. “I’m so impressed and humbled by students [with ASD] who continue to persist at CUNY.”