By:  Sam Farmer
Source: The Hill

Higher education initiatives that are delivering for students with learning differences

In 2017, the idea of attending college made Alayna Edwards, a high school senior living in Nashville, TN, feel somewhat apprehensive. Having been diagnosed as autistic, she wondered how successful she would be taking classes on a university campus. Then one afternoon that spring, her mother told her about the Full Spectrum Learning (FSL) program at Austin Peay State University.

FSL, which is housed in APSU’s Eriksson College of Education, was designed to promote retention and successful completion of a college degree for students on the autism spectrum. The program also aims to cultivate a desire for lifelong learning, helping its students transition into the workforce and enjoy success after graduation. Edwards is a case in point. In 2021, after having graduated with a degree in elementary education, she returned to campus in the Fall to pursue a graduate degree in curriculum instruction while also returning to the FSL program as a teaching assistant, having been inspired to give back to the program what it had given her as an undergraduate.

The FSL program is worthy of praise in that it provides more than merely academic support, considering that true success during the college years entails more than simply earning good grades. Special classes for freshmen and sophomores focus on how to succeed in college whereas special classes for juniors and seniors focus on how to succeed in the professional workforce. During the freshman and sophomore years, peer mentors assist with the socialization-related challenges which students with learning differences all too often confront while attending college. Come junior year, FSL students work closely with faculty mentors who help them find available resources pertinent to their field of study. Alayna Edwards' faculty mentor helped her find the master’s degree program in which she would ultimately enroll upon graduating.

Edwards' story is but one example of the kind of success the FSL program has achieved since it was first unveiled at APSU in 2015. During the academic year which ended earlier this year, six FSL students earned their degrees, and this Fall, 33 students registered, a record for the program. According to Emmanuel Mejeun, FSL director, students do not need to major in Education, even though FSL is a program of the College of Education. In fact, most of these students are science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) majors, or choose other majors offered by the College of Arts and Letters. An autism spectrum diagnosis is all that is needed.

In Massachusetts, partnerships exist between state government, local school districts and community colleges and state universities across the commonwealth which aim to make college more accessible to individuals with intellectual disabilities aged 18-22. The Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative (MAICEI), a program of the MA Dept. of Higher Education since 2007, funds these partnerships. The "concurrent enrollment" provision implies that students in MAICEI programs are enrolled in college while at the same time receiving special education services through local school districts. In this way, the same services on which these students depended while in secondary school and which are provided by an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are able to continue into the students' collegiate years.

The IEP continuity attribute of the MAICEI initiative is especially significant in that most IEP students with special needs have historically ended up “aging out of the system" once they graduate from high school and are left to face an uncertain future. Consequently, MAICEI students who, until recently, had few opportunities to continue their education beyond high school, are now pursuing college. This is possible because of expanding ideas, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, about how post-secondary education can benefit a wider diversity of students. The post-secondary benefits for the students who are supported by MAICEI are rooted in three core principles: the augmentation of individual skills, greater support from the environment and optimizing the integration of the individual with his environment.

MAICEI students are fully included in their respective campus communities. They develop their capabilities in career planning and employment, self-advocacy, and in supporting their own post-secondary school interests. They quickly establish new social networks, participate in campus-wide events, learn to use public transportation to and from campus, acquire academic knowledge and skills, and grow into more independent decision-makers.

Matthew Cullen, a MAICEI student at Salem State University, Salem, MA, is a case in point. Cullen has Down's Syndrome. When his school told him about the program, he jumped at the opportunity and ended up spending three semesters at SSU during which he took classes in public speaking, nutrition, sports injury and rock climbing. He also learned skills in mobility and travel training class which taught him how to navigate the commuter railway system on his own and use Uber, both of which he is able to use today to get to work. "That’s my favorite, the independence," Cullen admitted. "And it’s definitely fun being on the train."

It comes as no surprise that there is currently a push in Massachusetts for increased funding for MAICEI and for acceptance of students with intellectual disabilities who are older than 22. If these goals are achieved, the program expands, becomes more inclusive than it already is, and more success stories like Matthew Cullen's are told. When asked about the prospect of being able to re-enroll at Salem State University, Cullen, who wants to take more science classes but is now too old to re-enter the MAICEI program, admitted that he would love to return "because my dream is to work in the medical field."

APSU's Full Spectrum Learning, the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative and other programs like these are cultivating greater diversity on the college campus by accommodating those who have so much to offer yet have been marginalized for too long because of learning differences. As an autistic adult who was most fortunate to have attended college and found success there, both academically and personally, prior to the emergence of these types of offerings, it is very heartening to hear about how lives are being transformed for the better, just as mine was. I want for all aspiring college students everywhere, like Alayna Edwards and Matthew Cullen, to have what I had, and then some. In order for my wish to become reality, more support programs with similar missions need to surface and existing similar programs need to continue to reach for new heights.