Supporting the Transition to College: Implementation of a Summer Workshop Series for Students with Autism

ITP student Christina Shane-Simpson (Psychology) reflects on her independent study project

Project Summary

Students with autism often experience significant stress when transitioning from a supportive high school setting to the more independent college setting.  Despite high intelligence, high school graduates with autism often fail to enter college or drop out before completing their degrees (Cederlund et al., 2008).  While stress and anxiety have been identified as factors associated with the high student drop-out rate, colleges have not yet created evidence-based intervention programming to support students with autism during this transition.  This study will design, implement, and evaluate a summer training focused on developing classroom readiness, social skills, self-advocacy skills, and computer-mediated communication skills designed to support students with autism as they transition into college.  Twenty students will be recruited to participate in a weeklong workshop.  A five-phase, quasi-experimental pre/post-test design employing focus groups, behavioral assessments, and standardized measures will be used to examine the program’s impact on classroom behaviors, computer-mediated communication skills, self-advocacy skills, anxiety, loneliness, self-esteem, depression, and students’ adaptation to college life.  This study will instruct future programming targeting students with autism as they meet the challenges of an increasingly complex online and offline college social environment.


Increasing numbers of adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are entering college (Van Bergeijk, Klin, & Volkmar, 2008), illustrated by an increase from 5 to 82 students registered with ASD at the College of Staten Island (CSI) over a five-year period.  College students with autism often struggle with transitioning from a structured high school environment to the more socially complex college environment (Kapp et al., 2011; Adreon & Durocher, 2007), which can result in students experiencing increased loneliness, depression, anxiety, and stress (Glennon, 2001).

Despite these challenges, limited research has focused on adults with ASD and no studies have focused on interventions to facilitate and support the transition into college for students with autism (Bishop-Fitzpatrick, Minshew, & Eack, 2012).  During late adolescence, individuals with autism often struggle to establish independence, self-advocate, and develop strong social relationships (Kapp et al., 2011).  In college, students can struggle with loneliness, depression, anxiety, atypical sensory processing, problems with planning, and challenges associated with engaging in practices of self-advocacy (Glennon, 2001; White et al., 2011).  Educators have suggested that individuals with autism should begin learning self-advocacy skills in childhood (Shore, 2004), and that these skills can be expanded upon and practiced throughout college.  Even so, there is no research to date that has evaluated self-advocacy interventions specifically for individuals with ASD (Test et al., 2005).  Although each of the aforementioned areas have been identified as areas in need of further research, limited work has addressed how these challenges can be addressed as individuals with autism transition into college.

Few studies have identified specific disruptive behaviors exhibited by students with ASD in college.  However, literature has focused on ameliorating the behavioral challenges younger individuals with ASD often face in general education settings.  Classroom-based interventions including social stories, self-management strategies, peer-mediated interventions, and pre-task sequencing have all targeted young students’ disruptive behaviors (Scattone et al., 2002; Harrower & Dunlap, 2001).  Similar to younger individuals on the spectrum, college students with autism may also engage in disruptive classroom behaviors such as calling out answers during class, difficulty maintaining space boundaries with others, and sudden, unexpected behaviors (standing up and waving ones arms).  While the researchers in the current study have observed students enrolled in our mentorship program engaging in these behaviors, relatively little is known about the specific behaviors college students with autism express in college environments. Thus, a secondary aim of this study is to document potential challenges students on the spectrum may face when transitioning into college.  This study will design and evaluate teaching strategies that potentially help these students to manage these challenges.

Previous Studies at CSI

A current study at CSI is evaluating a mentorship program for college students with ASD and other disabilities.  Preliminary results from this study suggest that students with ASD may struggle in four specific areas related to in-person demands of college:

  1. Limited Self-Advocacy: Student often have limited knowledge of self-advocacy.  For example, few know the distinction between IDEA and the ADA and how this distinction affects them.
  2. Atypical Social Behaviors Outside of Class: Students may struggle to understand how to make friends with peers, may have questions about whether it is soon enough after meeting someone to ask them to be a friend, may develop inappropriate nicknames for potential friends, and/or they may interrupt conversations with peers in order to attempt to establish friendships.
  3. Atypical Social Behaviors in Class: Students may call out in class or sit silently and not interact at all with others. They may stand up suddenly in class and/or walk around the room waving their arms. Students may stare at the professor or peers in a way that makes them uncomfortable, or may stand too close to professors or peers.
  4. Difficulty with Planning/Studying: Student may neglect to consult their syllabi, they may not study until a few hours before a test, they also may experience difficulties related to perseverating on a single study style that has not been successful in the past including difficulty changing that study style.  They also may neglect to write sufficient notes in order to complete assignments successfully outside of class.

Developing Technology Skills

Online environments may be spaces that individuals on the spectrum can use to overcome many of the aforementioned offline social difficulties.  However, online environments may also serve as spaces in which offline challenges are recapitulated.  Limited research has explored how students with autism navigate and manipulate these online environments, in addition to any potential barriers they may encounter within these spaces.  Research suggests that people with ASD may view online environments as liberating spaces where they can interact with others on a more equal basis (Benford, 2008) using “pre-packaged” online social norms.  Through online spaces, individuals with ASD are given opportunities to take sufficient time to think of responses due to the semi-synchronous nature of most forms of online communication (Burke, Kraut, & Williams, 2010).  Consequently, online environments may remedy offline social difficulties.

However, effective use of these online social spaces requires that the individual user understand how to identify and use these pre-packaged social norms, and online social norms may recapitulate some of the offline social difficulties associated with autism.  Research has also suggested that some people with ASD dislike the lack of consistent social feedback online, and the relative absence of intonation and facial cues (Burke et al., 2010), both of which are indications of engagement during social interactions.  Individuals with autism may rely on these nonverbal indicators as red flags to determine how the conversational partner feels about the current conversation and whether to continue speaking about a topic.

Preliminary results from a current study at CSI suggest that freshman students with ASD may struggle in three areas of computer-mediated communication:

  1. Many students struggle to effectively structure email communication towards varying audiences (professor vs. student), a concrete representation of one of the online social norms identified by Benford (2008). Students may need assistance in recognizing how to write an informal email towards a peer, and then re-structure that email towards a professor.  Freshmen students are required to communicate via email with peers during collaborative class projects and also with their professors.  This skillset is applicable not only during the first year of college, but throughout later years in college and the student’s career path.
  2. While some students are able to identify “appropriate” privacy settings for social networking sites (such as Facebook), when asked to show the researcher their privacy settings, many students struggle to locate these settings and effectively modify these settings to reflect their needs/interests. Students seem to specifically lack the “applied” aspect of this social networking skill.
  3. The last area of difficulty most often cited by students on (and off) the spectrum includes the navigation of the Blackboard Learning Management System. Most freshman coursework at CSI (and many other college campuses) requires that students log-on, post, and submit assignments using the Blackboard System.   Students have extensively reported problems with navigating this Learning System, identifying difficulties locating classes, finding the syllabi on the site, using the Discussion Board forum, submitting assignments through SafeAssign, and locating class lecture notes.

Given the range of online and offline challenges students on the spectrum may face when adapting to college, it is highly likely that they would benefit from an intervention designed to help them transition into college.  Programming in this workshop series will be modeled after a research-based, peer-mentor social skills and self-advocacy skills trainings for college students with autism (Project REACH) attending CSI that the researcher is currently involved with as a mentor and group leader.

Using a scaffolding approach to learning (Vygotsky, 1987), each semester-long iteration of Project REACH at CSI has served freshmen through graduate-level students in a collaborative learning environment.  The social skills modules for Project REACH were based on the PEERS Model implemented with teenagers and adults at UCLA, but modified for use with a college student population (i.e. parents were an important part of the PEERS model but were not included in our intervention with college students in order to encourage independence).

Similarly, the self-advocacy modules were adapted from a self-advocacy curriculum developed by an autistic self-advocate, Valerie Paradiz, but modified to address specific self-advocacy challenges that college students face.  The preliminary results from self-reports collected in the spring of 2013 indicate that participation in REACH was associated with decreases in social symptoms and anxiety.  However, freshmen students with ASD in REACH consistently encountered unique challenges, such as difficulties navigating Blackboard and inappropriate behaviors during class such as calling out or walking around unexpectedly and standing too close to professors.

As an extension of the REACH model, the research team will modify the structure of the social skills and self-advocacy interventions to target college freshmen and the skills needed for college.  Computer-mediated communication skills will include the aforementioned modules (email communication, Blackboard, & privacy settings) identified by current participants in Project REACH, as well as additional challenges identified by the incoming 2014 freshman cohort.

Project Timeline and Methods

The aim of this project is to develop, implement, and evaluate an evidence-based computer-mediated training to help incoming freshmen with autism transition successfully into college through the use of supportive summer programming.  Incoming freshmen with autism will participate in a week-long workshop during the summer of 2014, prior to beginning the fall semester at CSI.  This research study will use a parallel sequential, mixed-methods, (Onwuigbuzie & Collins, 2007) quasi-experimental approach as methods to measure the impact of student participation in the summer program.

Phase I:  Recruitment

The research team is recruiting twenty, first year college students with autism from the CSI’s Center for Student Accessibility (CSA) and through informal workshops held at local high schools on Staten Island.  This recruitment phase will continue until the first focus group.

During the recruitment phase, the research team will also design and modify content areas identified in a current study the researcher is conducting at CSI with students on the spectrum, students with other disabilities, and students without a disability.  Preliminary results from this study have determined specific skills surrounding computer-mediated communication that students struggle with.  These computer skills trainings will be combined with previous modules (implemented in Project REACH) focusing on classroom readiness, social skills, and self-advocacy.  Prior to the first round of focus groups, the research team will create workshops designed to enhance skillsets in these content areas.

Phase II:  Workshop Design and Pre-Testing

The first round of focus groups will be held in late-July for 2-hour blocks of time.  Recordings from these preliminary focus groups will be analyzed over the course of one week to identify content areas of interest for the incoming freshman cohort and any potential barriers to success.  All focus groups will be led by the primary researchers (with undergraduate support staff), will be audio-recorded, and will then be transcribed in preparation for the analysis of the focus group content.

Once content areas have been identified, the research team will design/modify content for each workshop session.  Workshop content areas previously identified by Project REACH (class readiness, social skills, & self-advocacy) and by the computer-skills study at CSI (email, Blackboard, social networking) will be used as a set of foundational skills that the research team will build from.  These already-built modules will allow researchers to focus on modifying the skillsets to specifically address the wants and needs of the incoming cohort.

Phase III:  Skills Workshops

There will be two cohorts of incoming students, with ten students each.  Workshops will occur in a series of four weekdays during one week, for 4-hour increments each day.  Prior to beginning workshop instruction, students will be asked to demonstrate their current skillsets in video-taped, role-play environments within the classroom.  Students will also be asked to complete a series of standardized measures (assessing social symptoms, loneliness, self-esteem, depression, and anxiety).  Workshop trainings will be modeled after the Project REACH model and structured with the following components:

  1. Students will be introduced to and will then discuss key ideas related to classroom readiness, social skills, self-advocacy skills, and computer-mediated communication skills.
  2. The workshop facilitator will demonstrate the appropriate use of the skill. Each session will concentrate on at least one “focal” skill in each of the domains of programming, with an example of a “focal” skill from the computer-mediated skills – learning to navigate Blackboard.
  3. Students will practice role-playing both the current and previous target skills. As a core component of the Project REACH model, students will be allowed ample opportunities and will be encouraged to practice all of their focus skills with their peers, undergraduate mentors, and the workshop facilitator.
  4. Students will practice evaluating the current and the previous target skills of other students. The proposed model allows students to “try-out” their skills in an environment designed to be supportive, while also allowing students to receive constructive feedback from their peers and the facilitator for further skill development.

Throughout the skill practice sessions of each workshop, the graduate student instructor, undergraduate mentors, and the student’s peer group will provide immediate constructive feedback to participating students on all aspects of their skill development.

Phase IV:  Post-Testing

At the conclusion of the workshops in August, students will be asked to complete the same videotaped role-plays and standardized measures that they completed before the workshops began.

Phase V:  Program Evaluation

Students will engage in a final round of focus groups in late-August to discuss any barriers during the intervention, and to obtain students’ recommendations for future interventions.  These focus groups will also serve as opportunities for the researchers to modify and/or develop training modules for recommendations of future programming efforts at the CSI and other colleges.  The final evaluation phase of this model will allow researchers to provide recommendations for future programing for freshman students with autism as they meet the challenges of an increasingly complex online and offline college social environment.

Sample Module – Privacy on Facebook

The following module will be implemented during a computer lab session to assist students in locating and manipulating privacy settings on the social networking site, Facebook.  Screenshots have been included in this paper, but during the workshop, the instructor will pull up an actual Facebook account to illustrate how privacy settings can be identified and changed.   The instructor has created a fake Facebook account (and friended someone from her social group through the account) in order to effectively illustrate how to use Facebook’s privacy settings.

Sample dialogue during the lecture component of class will look like the following:

Instructor:  How many of you have an account on Facebook?  That’s great!  It looks like many of you are already very active through online social environments.  Online spaces such as Facebook or Twitter, or even Instagram can provide students with opportunities to interact with each other outside of class.  Does anyone know whether there are privacy settings on these social sites?  Facebook in particular has recently modified their privacy settings to allow the user (all of your) opportunities to select who can and who cannot see our profile, pictures, and messages on the site.  How many of you know how to locate your Facebook privacy settings?  Does someone want to come up and show me where I can locate mine on this Facebook page?

If students don’t volunteer, the instructor will take the students through a tutorial, showing them how to locate privacy settings on Facebook.  The following screenshots illustrate this:

shane simpson 1

Instructor:  Under the “Who Can See My Stuff” tab you can decide who can see your posts, including pictures and comments.  Can anyone think of a situation in which you might want to use or change this setting?

Using the “Who Can Contact Me” tab you can also decide who is allowed to get in touch with you on Facebook.  Can anyone think of a reason why you might want to use this Facebook setting?

shane simpson 2

Instructor:  The last privacy tab on Facebook is called “How do I Stop Someone from Bothering Me?”  Through this tab you can stop people from bothering you in different ways.  These settings allow you to block or de-friend someone to prevent them from viewing what you post (including pictures) or to prevent people from contacting you.  Can anyone think of an example for when you might use this function on Facebook?

shane simpson is project

Instructor:  I’ve already set up this “fake” Facebook account and actually friended someone on it.  Let’s actually change one of our privacy settings to increase my privacy on Facebook.  Which one should we try out?

The instructor will go through the privacy setting the students are most interested in testing out.  The instructor will then instruct students to break up into small groups (3 or so) and will lead a discussion in the computer lab where students will have the opportunity to set and/or change their privacy settings on Facebook.  If students express interest in exploring privacy setting on other social networking sites, the instructor will provide instructions to individual students during this open-lab/skill practice time.

Sample Module – Writing an Email

The following module will be implemented during the workshops to assist students in writing emails towards varying audiences – both peer and professor.  Screenshots have been pulled from a Powerpoint presentation illustrating examples of emails directed towards professors.  Dialogue for this workshop will look like the following:

Instructor:  How many of you have ever emailed your friends?  Of course you all have!  Email is the most common way to communicate with others online.  How many of you have ever emailed your teacher or a school administrator?  Today we’re going to cover how to structure an email towards different audiences.  Throughout your college career you’ll probably need to write an email to a friend and perhaps write an email to a professor.  For most of you, these emails will look very different.  How might an email to your peer/friend be different than an email to your instructor/professor?  Let’s talk about what goes into an email that you want to send to your professor.

The instructor will go through the elements of an email using the following slide. 

shane simpson 3

Instructor:  First, let’s take a look at a strong, well-written email.  What makes this one well-written?

shane simpson 4

Instructor will identify and discuss with the class all of the well-written components:  Subject line, greeting, content is concise, closure, and signature.  The instructor will then post the following Powerpoint screenshots, with each one followed by a brief discussion of the “good” and “bad” elements of the emails.

Instructor:  Now that we know what goes into a great email, let’s look at some examples.  I’d like you to get into groups of 3 with your neighbors.  I’m going to post an email on the screen, and I’d like your group to make two lists.  First, identify what the email sender did well and then what they didn’t do so well.

Instructor:  Here’s your first email.  In your group, can you identify what’s good about this email and what’s not-so-good?

shane simpson 5

Instructor will identify the lack of subject line, informal greeting, content of the email, and lack of closure with signature.

Instructor:  Here’s one more.  Let’s see what another student wrote.

shane simpson 6

Instructor:  In your groups again, decide what you think about this email and then we’ll talk about it as a class.

Instructor and class will identify the good pieces (part of a subject line, greeting, content, closure) and the bad pieces (lack of signature, missing part of the subject line). 

Instructor:  We’ve identified what should and shouldn’t go into an email that you’re sending to a professor.  What about the emails you send to your friends?  How are those different?  What is different about those and why?  I’d like to discuss this within your small groups and then we’ll discuss this as a class.

Instructor and the class will talk about the informality of emails directed towards peers and the more formal emails appropriate for professors/teachers.  The class will be given a homework assignment to send the instructor an email through Blackboard that asks a question about an upcoming workshop. 

Practical Relevance

This study seeks to identify, intervene, support, and evaluate the everyday challenges that students with autism by providing them with the skills necessary for success in life beyond high school.  Although the focal areas have practical application in daily life, they will likely be useful for students after college.  Classroom readiness skills, while applicable to the college classroom, are also skills that extend into the workplace.  Social skills prepare students to engage, further develop, and then maintain meaningful relationships with others. Self-advocacy skills promote independence for individuals, providing them with tools to acquire resources and/or assistance.

Freshmen in college are required to develop and effectively use various computer-mediated communication skills, ranging from formal learning management systems to the less formal social networking sites that students use to connect with peers and organizations on campus.  Student-run organizations are increasingly relying on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate information about upcoming meetings and events.  Consequently, freshmen need to learn how to use social networking sites to connect and then maintain connections with these student organizations.  The effective use of modern technologies may also enhance the process of forming strong social connections with peer groups, an essential component of college life.

From an educational standpoint, undergraduate students are increasingly utilizing technologies such as GoogleDoc’s and Skype to collaboratively work on assignments for class.  College campuses are progressively becoming technology-driven and technology-mediated environments evident in the recent explosion of hybrid courses.  Even the more traditional classrooms are increasingly filled with students using “Smart” technologies designed to facilitate and enhance the learning process (i.e. laptops, tablets, and cell phones).  While the addition of these new technologies has resulted in better accessibility for individuals with a range of disabilities, some students may need additional support in order to learn how to manipulate these technologies.  Students with autism will need to effectively learn about and then appropriately use these various forms of technology to be successful in their classrooms during the first year of college and throughout their college education.  Students will likely re-encounter these technologies, as many are also commonly found in professional career settings.

All of the skills workshops will provide students on the spectrum with practical knowledge during a typically stressful, transitional period of time.  Through the summer workshops, students will also be reminded of opportunities, both inside and outside of the classroom, in which they can appropriately use their newly acquired skillsets.


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