For many people, going to college is an exciting time full of new experiences, a fresh sense of independence, and unique opportunities to connect and learn with people from other backgrounds. For these and other reasons, making the transition to college and continuing to graduation can be challenging for autistic students.
Without proper support services, people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can struggle due to the social and academic challenges of higher education. They can experience communication difficulties, sensory sensitivities, and executive functioning challenges affecting their organization, time management, social interactions, and planning abilities.
Graduate students in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Center on Developmental Disabilities (CDD) can now learn about supporting autistic college students through a new partnership with STARS, Inc., a nonprofit organization housed at Christian Brothers University (CBU) that helps degree-seeking, autistic college students be successful.
“I think many people don’t understand what autism is and the barriers it creates in higher education and transitioning to a career after graduation. There are a lot of challenges that people who are neurotypical don’t understand because executive functioning comes naturally to them,” said Kim Jameson, founder and executive director of STARS.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our center to extend the lifespan perspective to our work, supporting young autistic adults as they pursue autonomy and inclusion within higher education and the workplace,” said Bruce Keisling, PhD, executive director of the CDD and professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics.
STARS, which stands for Students Tackling Austism-Related Syndromes, has several programs aimed at assisting autistic college students as they transition from high school to college and from college to careers and independent living. By working with STARS, Dr. Keisling said the faculty, staff, and students at the CDD will broaden their understanding of what life can look like for an autistic person beyond the pediatric years.
“At our center, graduate students from 10 different allied health fields receive clinical training in the early identification, diagnosis, and treatment of children with suspected neurodevelopmental disorders. Now, these students have the opportunity to interact with and learn from their older counterparts, who are approximately the same age as our students,” he said. “That has helped inform how our clinicians-in-training provide feedback to families going through the evaluation process — our graduate students have a broader sense of the possibilities beyond high school. I think that’s been really exciting.”
The graduate students are already seeing benefits from working with STARS students. Lenisha Vasser, a Union University graduate student in social work completing a clinical practicum at the CDD, said helping autistic people who are around her age has been inspirational. Ava Quinn, who is completing a clinical practicum at the CDD as part of her social work graduate program at the University of Memphis, said her work with STARS has done more than help her learn about autism.
“STARS has given me the chance to provide support for neurodivergent adults, educate stakeholders and the greater community, and advocate for systemic equity,” she said. “I am honored and grateful to play a part in such an amazing program, working to expand the world of opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum.”
Since starting as a social program in 2015, STARS has continued to develop its academic support services and programs. One of its programs, called TEAM (Teaching Employment and Academic Mastery), connects students with a coach who guides them, monitors their progress with classes, and assists them with time management and organizational planning. Its social activities foster personal growth and encourage students to form meaningful friendships with each other and their neurotypical peers. Recently, the organization has increased its focus on helping students obtain jobs aligned with their field of study after graduating.
“We’ve learned our STARS students who have graduated with a degree have a difficult time finding and keeping employment, because their greatest difficulty is with executive functioning, and that pertains to every part of attaining a job and keeping a job,” Jameson said. “There is an 85% unemployment or underemployment rate, so now we’re growing our STARS Connects program to help connect the students and graduates to employers in careers that actually pertain to their degree.”
Nearly a decade into its operation, STARS and its programs are gaining attention from other institutions looking to improve their support for autistic students. One of the organization’s goals from the beginning was to create a system that can be duplicated at other colleges and universities, and Jameson said that will happen naturally as it continues to develop its services.
“We are creating something novel here to support these students in college and beyond,” she said. “I work alongside other program directors throughout the country, and we meet on a regular basis and help each other, because we’re really all writing the rule book. There isn’t a source you can go to and say, ‘How do you do this?’”
The collaboration between the CDD and STARS stemmed from a five-year, $3.03 million grant from the U.S. Administration for Community Living for the CDD to continue serving as a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD). One of the roles of a UCEDD is to leverage and support model programs in the community that are doing innovative disability work.
“We’re really excited about helping STARS grow and seeing lives changed, watching young people on the spectrum graduate with college degrees and find employment that leads to greater independence and heightened quality of life,” Dr. Keisling said.
“I am very proud of our collaboration with UT Health Science Center, and I look forward to years of growing and learning from each other and being a part of this community,” Jameson said. “I learn something new from my students just about every day, and to be able to share my knowledge and share what they’ve learned with others is one of our keys to success.”
Since it opened in the 1960s, the CDD has been a resource to families and Mid-South communities in the area of developmental disabilities. Through partnerships like the one with STARS, the CDD can better prepare its graduate students to make a difference through their future careers.
“We aspire to train the next generation of clinicians to be more well-rounded in their understanding and support of the possibilities for people with neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, as they age into adulthood,” Dr. Keisling said.