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An Interview with Heather Conroy, Autism and Education Specialist

I met Heather Conroy just before the 2011-13 school year. The university where I teach had asked me to reach out to two students diagnosed on the autism spectrum and consider how we might support those students. I contacted a Pittsburgh organization specializing in supports for high school and college students, which led to a meeting with Heather and one of her colleagues.

I encourage readers to visit her website, http://www.heatherconroy.com, for some information.

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1. I'd like to begin with a short introduction to my readers. How did you decided to specialize in helping young adults with ASDs navigate the school setting?

A: I began working in the field, as many practitioners do, by working with young children with autism. Later, when seeking a field learning placement for my social work degree at The University of Pittsburgh, I wanted to do something slightly different and was amazed at the astounding capabilities of the college students I worked with at AHEADD (Achieving in Higher Education with Autism/Developmental Disabilities). The students were fun, intelligent, and they brought me new, unexpected challenges each day. I noticed the difference between pure communication difficulties I saw in young children I worked with and the difficulties college students have with social nuances and nonverbal communication. I realized quickly that this was the main struggle for many of my students who were having difficulty with peers and professors, as well as keeping up with the class work. They didn't know when to ask for help, who to ask for help, or how to ask for help. The social piece has been my main focus since I started working with college students in 2010.

2. We know that some students with ASDs struggle in courses that are outside their interest areas. What are some other issues that affect academic performance that don't necessarily reflect the abilities of the student? How can these be addressed?

The college campus needs to be more easily navigated in general. First, professors should clearly outline expectations for their courses. Sure, this is done by way of a syllabus, but a student may not know what "participation" means, for example. Does it mean coming to class? Coming to class on time, every time? Does it mean raising my hand every class? And how often should I raise my hand? And if I raise my hand 10 times every class because I want to be sure that I earn my participation grade, why do I receive strange looks from my classmates and professors? Students on the spectrum are not always able to pick up on the social cues of a classroom. They do not always know when and how to participate.

Also, students may be given accommodations, but they are often not sure how to use them, or they feel that they will be singled out if they do. They may not recognize the value in having extended test time or a note taker or the use of assistive technology, because they have never used either of these supports in the past. Students may not know how to get to the office of support, or who to talk to once they are there, or how to ask for help. It all becomes overwhelming, even for a "neurotypical" student.

I've also seen many students become depressed due to feeling socially isolated. Mental health will certainly affect one's performance, particularly in subjects that require them to work harder.

Finally, I've met many people who have never studied or written a paper before. They are computer programmers or musicians or actors through and through and have somehow gotten through their high school careers without learning the necessary skills to complete a standard English or writing course. Trying to find ways to organize oneself at the age of 18 for the very first time can be a pretty daunting task that will require some support and lots of time and coaching. Visiting a support office once a week may not help a student learn the skills necessary.

One way to address these issues is to begin the self-awareness and self-advocacy climb as early as possible. By age 14, if students are lucky enough to be diagnosed during childhood, individuals with any disability should actively participate in their high school IEP meetings and transition plans. They should learn what accommodations are being made for them, request additional accommodations when needed, and know what makes them different from any other student. Parents should do their best to allow their children to practice independent skills like laundry, cooking, filling prescriptions, etc. so that they can focus on academics and socialization.

Additionally, colleges and universities can begin to address the needs of students by building programs that address the needs of these students. Many are popping up across the nation, but nearly all of them require an additional fee for service due to the time it takes to provide the additional support.

3. In my experience, it is the social setting that poses the greatest challenges, both in school and in the workplace. Do you help students develop skills to navigate those social settings? What are some strategies you might suggest?

You are right that the social piece seems to be the most challenging part of the college experience, whether it be with peers, professors, cafeteria staff, housing, etc. Role play is commonly used, but college-aged individuals don't always feel up to the challenge. I guess they have learned at some point that pretending is "uncool" or childish. However, I sometimes start by showing clips of a TV show. For instance, if someone is interested in learning how to be funny or how to show others that he/she finds something funny, we might watch a comedy series, pausing at specific points to pick out what each character does well, or what would be acceptable in certain social situations. That can be a starting point for video taping our own sessions for future critiques. I try to stress what my clients do well vs. focusing on the negatives and I begin by asking what they think they did well - often a difficult task.

I also suggest that my clients/students try to emulate a socially successful friend or acquaintance. I tell them to try and think what that friend would do and try that when they approach a girl or ask a classmate to share his or her notes.

I try to normalize situations for the adults with whom I work. I have realized (fairly recently) that many adults with ASD think that their thoughts are strange or that they are the only ones who feel uncomfortable in group settings. I've heard many people express feeling plagued with guilt over finding a girl attractive when they know that she should not be pursued because she has a boyfriend, she says she doesn't want to date, or she hasn't shown enough interest yet. (Please excuse my overgeneralization of pronouns.) We all feel this way at some point and it is hard for many of us to know how to talk to someone we find attractive. We have all been embarrassed by a bad grade or a social faux pas. But we find ways to change the impressions we may have made that aren't ideal by trying again and paying attention to what others appear to be thinking.

4. Colleges and universities are cutting supports, such as reducing disability services staffing levels. What role can be filled by private specialists to help students succeed? What can a private specialist not provide, in terms of supports and advocacy?

Private specialists can spend more time with students - which I've found to be very important. Like all of us, students on the spectrum benefit from having a point person or a social translator - someone to call when you are not sure how to approach a person or why someone gave you a funny look. Although I've met incredibly dedicated and skilled college support staff, their caseloads are simply too large to spend the time with these students that is often required. Where do private specialists fall short? Depending on the culture of the school, if can be difficult to get the inside scoop from professors about how a student is performing because they are not a part of that campus community. They may not be able to communicate directly with professors if the student does not sign a release or the college does not allow for the communication. These are often great opportunities for students to take the wheel and drive for themselves, though, after receiving some coaching in advocacy. Private specialists should become very familiar with the campus(es) at which they are supporting students, but I imagine that could also pose some difficulty if a student needs to know how exactly to get to office hours or the writing center.


5. You might work with some clients for months and others throughout several years. How would you explain the different needs to families considering working with a specialist?

It has become cliche, but ASD truly is a spectrum of very different individuals with very different needs and experiences. Some students have never had to study, while others have studied for hours on end and need to learn how to become more efficient. The student's current level of independence in the areas of academics, organization, time management, and socialization will likely determine the length of support required. Some students have continued receiving additional help for all four (or more) years, mostly as a safety net, but many fall somewhere in the 1-3 year range.

6. I've told parents and students there is no "one right" answer to what is the best college setting for any student. Some students with ASDs need a small, personal campus, while others seem to thrive in larger settings that provide anonymity. Do you help students evaluate what might be the best path forward for them individually?

I agree! If students come to me prior to choosing a college, I can absolutely help them find a good fit based on campus culture, e.g., "Can I see myself interacting with the students at this school?" and the level of support that is needed. This is an interesting topic for me...when I think about my college choice - I was purely focused on the social aspect and the "feel" I would have in a city versus a rural setting. The students with ASD that I meet tend to focus on the best school for their interest. I tell students to take both into account with equal weight.

7. What other thoughts would you like to share about autism and higher education?

College is an opportunity for young people to begin to discover their talents and potentials. Across the board, I would like to see college as a more supportive student environment with approachable staff. Providing support is not an option, but a necessity, as there are surely students with ASD on every college campus across the nation. I would like for higher education, as well as the work force, to recognize the rights and needs of people with "hidden disabilities" just as they recognize the needs of those with physical disabilities. To be fair, the autism community presents challenges because the same accommodation cannot be used for every person. For a person in a wheel chair, generally, we know we can build ramps and provide elevators or accessible toilets. For a person with an autism diagnosis, we only know that there will be difficulty with communication, but how that will look for each person is very different. Despite the difficulty in providing accommodations, I would like to see more of a genuine effort to learn more about what autism is and how one can at least begin to provide support to autistic individuals by assessing each person individually.

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* Thank you. I'm sure my readers appreciate your time and the information you've provided. Again, I also encourage them to visit your website, heatherconroy.com for more information.

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