University of Louisville experts in the Kentucky Autism Training Center, part of the College of Education and Human Development, are presenting a training program aimed at improving student success rates for those identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is their third year presenting on the topic. 

Reframing Autism: Collaborating to Help Students on the Spectrum Thrive in College” combines informative online modules with a virtual roundtable discussion. The roundtable discussion is scheduled for March 16, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Any faculty or staff member may sign up here.

Featured in the training are Heidi Cooley-Cook, assistant director, and Mike Miller, family field training coordinator, of the KATC, and Colleen Martin, director of UofL’s Disability Resource Center.

“We currently have 40 students who are receiving support from the DRC,” Cooley-Cook said. She added that a total of about 333 students enrolled in fall 2020 identify as having ASD — a number that is expected to continue to grow. 

KATC is a university-based program with a legislative mandate to enhance outcomes for Kentuckians with ASD. It is a statewide resource for families and educators. The DRC provides support for UofL students with documented disabilities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 traditional college-age individuals in the United States identify as having ASD. But the CDC also estimates that by 2022, that number will increase to 1 in 59. The CDC defines ASD as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.”

While coping with the transition from high school to college can be challenging for many incoming students, for those with ASD, these challenges may be amplified. The modules combined with a Feb. 10 roundtable discussion explored various aspects of this issue, including students’ difficulty making friends and working on group projects.

Junior Nathaniel Newcomer, a student with ASD who is majoring in health and human performance, said group projects can be vague for someone on the spectrum. “Be specific about what is required to work with a team,” he suggested. 

Cooley-Cook said students with ASD may become unsettled when there are changes in their routines or may have trouble with loud noises or other sensory experiences, such as experiencing a sound as a taste. Professors and staff who recognize these signs are more prepared help students remain calm when they are upset.

Miller and Cooley-Cook emphasized that UofL is providing students with ASD much more than just a degree: These students learn life skills from professors and fellow students who become their role models.

Miller works one-on-one with 10 ASD students each academic year. This year, his group includes students in engineering, business, biology and exercise science.

He takes a photograph of every student he works with as a freshman, and then another of them as a senior. When he asks the student which version they like better, they always pick the senior photo, he said. Every student he has worked with has found employment after graduation, Miller said.

Miller said he’s worked with the J.B. Speed School of Engineering to ensure that classes are videotaped (even before COVID-19). That way, students who need help taking notes can refer back to lectures. This also helps the entire student body, because the recording is available to every student in the class who may need it, he said.

Speed mechanical engineering senior Ben Mitchell, who participated in the roundtable, has worked with Miller for four years and is maintaining a 4.0 GPA. He plans to go into the Master’s of Engineering Program at Speed after he graduates.

“Mike has always been available to listen to my successes and my struggles ever since I first met him, and I know he’s so proud of how far I’ve come from when I first started out here,” Mitchell said.

In addition to the KATC and the DRC, “Reframing Autism” is sponsored by the Dean of Students office and the Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning.