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Special Report
12/26/2014 12:00 AM

Students with autism-spectrum disorder are often viewed as being somehow odd by those who don’t know about their condition or don’t understand it. Meanwhile, students on the spectrum frequently lack an understanding of nonverbal communication and what constitutes acceptable behavior. That can lead to misunderstandings between students with ASD and college faculty, staff and their peers.

As part of an online survey conducted by Disability Compliance for Higher Education, we asked more than 200 disability services providers at institutions across the country about behavioral issues involving students on the spectrum. Our findings may give you some ideas on how to address such problems on your own campus or even reduce their occurrence.

Students with autism-spectrum disorder are often viewed as being somehow odd by those who don’t know about their condition or don’t understand it. Meanwhile, students on the spectrum frequently lack an understanding of nonverbal communication and what constitutes acceptable behavior. That can lead to misunderstandings between students with ASD and college faculty, staff and their peers.

As part of an online survey conducted by Disability Compliance for Higher Education, we asked more than 200 disability services providers at institutions across the country about behavioral issues involving students on the spectrum. Our findings may give you some ideas on how to address such problems on your own campus or even reduce their occurrence.

Classroom behavior is major stumbling block

Something as simple as knowing when to raise a hand in class to ask a question or when to stop talking in response to a professor’s question can get some students with ASD in trouble. The students engaging in that kind of behavior may have no idea that they’re being anything other than engaged learners, while professors and classmates may perceive them as being rude and disruptive.

That may explain why most of our survey participants (80 percent) said that inappropriate classroom behavior can be a problem for students with ASD at their institutions. Only 8 percent said it’s not an issue.

However, another 13 percent of those we polled said they’re not sure. That’s significant because if disability services providers aren’t aware of conduct issues involving students on the spectrum, they can’t help those students modify their problematic behavior, and the students may not be able to do that without some direction from someone who understands their condition.

Among survey participants who reported hearing of classroom conduct issues at their institutions, 67 percent said that inappropriate classroom behavior involving students with ASD is an occasional occurrence. Another 11 percent said it’s frequently a problem, and 22 percent said it rarely comes up.

Fortunately, the vast majority of those we polled (96 percent) recognize the importance of working with faculty members to better prevent and address behavioral problems in the classroom.

More than half (52 percent) participate in faculty orientations to educate professors about ASD, and a slightly smaller number (50 percent) have created and/or distributed materials to faculty members about the condition. Another 45 percent reported that they have organized and/or hosted faculty training sessions on how to work with students on the spectrum.

Others also said they conduct one-on-one consultations with faculty members, distribute information to all professors prior to the start of each semester, and offer webinars or videos for instructors to create understanding of ASD and provide them with classroom-management strategies specially designed for students on the spectrum.

Conduct issues can require DS involvement

Students on the spectrum can sometimes find themselves in front of judicial boards for behavior that to others seems threatening or otherwise unacceptable but to the students with ASD seems perfectly ordinary. In fact, 48 percent of survey participants said they have learned of students on the spectrum being charged with conduct issues on their campuses.

Among those who have learned of such charges, most (87 percent) played a role in addressing the situation. Most commonly (86 percent), they advised college personnel about the role or possible role of students’ disability on their behavior and advised the involved students about the need to stop or modify the problematic behavior (78 percent).

Others also worked with students’ parents to devise and implement possible interventions, advocated on behalf of students during conduct hearings, provided students accommodations during the judicial process, and advised college personnel on how to communicate clearly and concretely with students.

Interestingly, 10 percent of participants said they are not sure if any students with ASD have faced conduct charges at their institutions. But if DS providers never learn of such situations, students on the spectrum are simply likely to get in trouble again.

But just as students are often on the offending end of conduct issues, they can also be victims. Students with disabilities in general tend to be victimized at higher rates than their nondisabled peers, and those with ASD may be particularly vulnerable because their behavior can seem so bizarre to some people.

More than a quarter (26 percent) of the DS providers in our survey said that they had heard of situations on their campuses in which students with ASD were bullied or harassed. Meanwhile, 14 percent said they were not sure. Unfortunately, if disclosing such victimization to DS providers — with whom they likely feel most comfortable — they’re probably also not reporting it to campus safety officials. And that means that they may simply continue to be victimized and suffer in silence until they withdraw from the institution or act out against their tormentor.

That’s why it’s such a good idea for DS providers to encourage students on the spectrum registered with their offices to visit them regularly and tell those students that they should feel safe coming to them with whatever problems they may experiencing, whether or not those problems are related to accommodations.

Special Report
12/26/2014 12:00 AM

Do you know the retention rate among students with autism-spectrum disorder at your institution, or how their retention rate compares with that of other students served by your disability services unit? That’s valuable information that could help you determine whether you’re providing students with ASD adequate support or whether you need to implement new strategies to help those students succeed.

Do you know the retention rate among students with autism-spectrum disorder at your institution, or how their retention rate compares with that of other students served by your disability services unit? That’s valuable information that could help you determine whether you’re providing students with ASD adequate support or whether you need to implement new strategies to help those students succeed.

Unfortunately, we surveyed more than 200 disability services providers at institutions across the country and found that just 36 percent of them track retention for students on the spectrum served by their units.

However, among those that do track retention of this student population, more than half (59 percent) said that students with ASD are retained at about the same rate as other students with disabilities. Only 13 percent said those students are retained at a much lower rate. On the other hand, 4 percent said retention for students on the spectrum is much higher than for those with other kinds of disabilities.

That may be due, in part, to the fact that at many institutions, specialized services are popping up to serve the unique needs of this population. We were surprised at the number of responses when we asked survey participants to share their best strategies for supporting students on the spectrum. Below are our top picks:

  • Educate faculty and staff members. Many respondents do this during orientation sessions for new employees, while others have created presentations, webinars and videos that they offer employees regularly. One institution also developed a behavioral tip sheet to help faculty members better communicate with students on the spectrum.
  • Connect with students regularly. Communicating with students on a regular basis ensures that you hear about any issues before they become major problems so you can help troubleshoot them. For instance, if they are having issues communicating with professors, you can help them develop a script to use. One survey participant also noted that having a specific DS provider assigned to specific students on the spectrum helps those students develop trust so they will disclose any issues they may experience down the line.
  • Bring students’ families into the fold. Students’ parents or guardians may provide insights about students’ behavioral issues and learning challenges that the students themselves may not think to bring up. That can allow you to develop a sound plan for providing accommodations and supports. One institution allows family members to become part of an integrated support team, which meets once a month with the student to ensure everything is going well.
  • Provide mentoring/coaching opportunities. Consider pairing students with ASD registered with your office with students in social work or similar programs who need volunteer hours for mentoring and social skill development. Mentors can help not only with academic issues, but also with social and time-management skills.
  • Give students a chance to connect with others on spectrum. A peer support program allows students to feel like they belong, plus talk about disability-related issues in a safe space. Such a group also allows students the chance to practice their social skills and develop time-management and prioritization skills.
  • Ensure students have access to supports on and off campus. Your office may not have all the resources to provide students on the spectrum with wraparound support, but between the services they can access at your institution and those offered by agencies in the surrounding community, they may be able to access more than enough support to be successful.
  • Provide students with a special orientation. Consider allowing those on the spectrum to come to campus a few days before the general orientation so they can meet with you and other support staff, see their dorm rooms, and get acquainted with the campus. It’s also a great opportunity to talk to them about what their professors will expect from them and where to go for help if they are experiencing any problems.
  • Mediate behavioral problems. Being part of your institution’s behavioral intervention team ensures you can address the role of ASD in behavior if students on the spectrum come to the BIT’s attention. And serving as a mediator between students and professors can also help resolve issues if students engage in disruptive or inappropriate classroom behavior.
Accommodation
12/12/2014 12:00 AM

Note-taking is one of the most frequently used disability accommodations on college and university campuses. While there are numerous ways to provide students with supplemental notes, many disability services offices struggle with creating a system that is both consistent and confidential.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Office of Disability Services has addressed some of the most common challenges inherent to note-taking accommodations by implementing a streamlined, electronic delivery system that is volunteer-based yet confidential.

Note-taking is one of the most frequently used disability accommodations on college and university campuses. While there are numerous ways to provide students with supplemental notes, many disability services offices struggle with creating a system that is both consistent and confidential.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Office of Disability Services has addressed some of the most common challenges inherent to note-taking accommodations by implementing a streamlined, electronic delivery system that is volunteer-based yet confidential.

If you’re looking for ways to better serve students needing note-taking as an accommodation, our model may provide you with some helpful ideas.

Automated system makes managing accommodations easier

The DS office created an automated system that is used to store student and course information, recruit volunteers, deliver notes, and help manage the note-taking accommodation. The program uses Microsoft Excel, Visual Basic, a specific Outlook email account, a designated note-taker website, and a university server. It pulls student and course data from Banner, the student information system used by the university, allowing DS counselors to easily identify the students requiring the accommodation and the classes for which notes are needed.

Once indicated within the system, the information is saved to a note-taking database that uses an Excel spreadsheet. Emails requesting volunteer note-takers are then sent to students enrolled in the classes where the accommodation is required.

Volunteers, online submission are key components

The voluntary nature of our program is beneficial for everyone involved. Volunteers see this as meaningful work, which results in high-quality and consistent notes for our students. Volunteers are also rewarded with community service hours. At a time when doing more with less is critical, this option allows the DS office to avoid having to financially compensate note-takers.

Interested students respond to a recruitment email. Once selected, volunteers are provided with instructions, including guidance for taking “good” notes. They then log into a website designated for volunteer note-takers and select the class for which they have notes using a drop-down menu.

Volunteers’ notes, which are scanned or typed, are uploaded to this same website and saved to a university server. A Web address is assigned to each submission. The DS office receives the Web links and forwards them to the students needing the notes.

Management, assessment processes ensure effectiveness

To help maintain the program, the office employs two part-time graduate assistants. They undergo training and work closely with DS counselors and the assistive technology specialist to monitor and manage notes.

A programmable, color-coded system within the note-taking database makes that task easy and allows problems to be identified and addressed quickly. Colors are assigned to alert graduate assistants if notes are late or missing. To resolve issues, GAs can then send follow-up emails to the appropriate volunteer note-takers. If the issue continues, the DS office will recruit and hire another volunteer as a replacement.

Because the notes are stored on a university server, they are available for review if complaints regarding quality arise.

While this program was created specifically to track issues, additional evaluation and quality-control measures are also in place. Feedback is encouraged throughout the term, and a more formal evaluation occurs at the end of the year to gauge students’ accommodation experience. Results allow the office to identify where improvement may be needed.

Serving as intermediary ensures confidentiality

The note-taking system ensures confidentiality, since all correspondence is mitigated by the DS office. For one, it doesn’t require public announcements from instructors. Also, it avoids interaction between volunteers and registered students by not requiring them to go to a shared space for note delivery and pickup.

In fact, names of registered students and volunteers are never disclosed to each other. Emails requesting volunteers are sent from the department and specify that the DS office, not specific students, is in need of volunteer note-takers. Because links to notes are forwarded via email to registered students by the DS office, and not by the note-takers, students’ privacy isn’t compromised.

Results have been positive, issues rare

While infrequent, there have been instances when volunteer note-takers are unavailable and alternate accommodations such as recorders or “smart” pens must be provided. However, this is typically the exception, as we often have more volunteers than we need.

Using this system, notes were provided for approximately 1,700 courses last academic year. With limited resources, the DS office was able to address some of the most problematic issues associated with providing note-taking accommodations, including workload, note quality and continuity, student confidentiality, and cost-effectiveness.

Conversation With: Elizabeth G. Harrison
1/19/2015 12:00 AM

Elizabeth G. Harrison is the director of the University of Dayton’s Office of Learning Resources and associate director of the Ryan C. Harris Learning Teaching Center. She has presented extensively on the topics of working with faculty to promote universal design and expanding accessibility for students with disabilities.

Elizabeth G. Harrison is the director of the University of Dayton’s Office of Learning Resources and associate director of the Ryan C. Harris Learning Teaching Center. She has presented extensively on the topics of working with faculty to promote universal design and expanding accessibility for students with disabilities.

Q: How can disability services providers work with faculty members to increase accessibility?

A: It’s sometimes easier to say this than to do, but disability services providers should really get to know the faculty development and learning support people on their campuses. These people can become powerful allies in reaching out to the faculty and educating them about how to broaden accessibility.

Get to know those folks on campus who, from your point of view, have roles that seem in one way or another to be related to what you do. See exactly what it is they do and how it overlaps with your own role or what you think needs to be done to broaden accessibility. Find out what they think about disability and talk with them about the things you want to do. If they’re receptive, work together on those things. Don’t think that it has to be you alone doing this, because we all care about helping students succeed.

Q: Why aren’t such collaborations more commonplace?

A: Disability services providers may sometimes think of themselves as the only people on campus who serve students with disabilities, the only ones who care about serving students with disabilities, or the only ones who can serve those students. But that’s not the case. There are many others who, if you could just help them to understand the issues facing students with disabilities, would become committed to expanding accessibility.

For some DS providers, I think it may be the case that they got into disability services because they have a family member or someone they care about who has a disability and needed support in college. Or perhaps the DS providers themselves experienced college as students with disabilities, so now they feel a personal commitment to expanding access for others, and they feel that they can’t put that commitment on others. We all operate on certain assumptions that have been built over the years as a result of our own experiences, and that can get in our way.

I encourage people to explore their own assumptions about things such as faculty and their own roles at their institutions. Ask: Why do I think I’m the only one, or my office is the only one, who can do this work? Why am I convinced others will say “no, we can’t do this” or “this won’t work”? Why do I think others may not care? Try to get past that and work intentionally to expand your own mental model while at the same time educating others to help them do the same thing.

For more information, you may contact Elizabeth G. Harrison at eharrison1@udayton.edu.

Conversation With: Tom Merrell
1/7/2015 12:00 AM
Image of Tom Merrell
Tom Merrell

Tom Merrell is the assistant dean and director of student disability services at the University of San Francisco, where he has used technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of his office’s myriad functions, deliver more personal service, and improve accountability through the use of a digital database.

Tom MerrellTom Merrell is the assistant dean and director of student disability services at the University of San Francisco, where he has used technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of his office’s myriad functions, deliver more personal service, and improve accountability through the use of a digital database.

Q: Why did you decide to embrace a digital solution for your unit?

A: Part of our jobs in disability services is to deal with things like assistive technology and alternate media, so it’s kind of ironic that sometimes we tend to fear new technology for our own offices. When I first proposed going digital, I got some sideways looks from the higher-ups. And of course, there was the question of “Do we really need this?” because everything costs money. But digital is simply where the world is going, so if you don’t do this now, you’ll just have to do it later. And we knew that in the long run, having an electronic database in place would help us capture and use data about our students, improve accountability on every side, and better serve our students.

Q: Can you tell me about the database you use and how you selected it?

A: We found this great tool called Accessible Information Management. It’s a database platform that covers our disability services operation from beginning to end. Students start out by completing a quick registration form. That puts them in the queue to speak with one of our specialists, and from there all the touch points from the program are done through the database. Everything from requesting accommodations, communicating with their assigned DS specialists, and getting accommodation letters to instructors takes a lot less time, so that our specialists can spend the majority of their time listening to and talking with students, as opposed to taking care of different housekeeping tasks.

What we were looking for was a solution developed by someone who really understood disability services and our day-to-day operations. AIM was patient with the hundreds of questions we had in the beginning and even flew someone down to really show us how the product works. I also liked that the database talks to Banner to get specific information such as students’ GPAs and demographic data. At the same time, it doesn’t feed information in the opposite direction, so disability-related information is kept confidential.

Q: What was the implementation process like for your office?

A: We implemented AIM in January 2012. We were given two options. The first was the equivalent of dipping your toes in the water, which could have entailed just entering freshman students into the database to start. The second option was to jump right in. We decided to jump right in and make the switch over the spring semester because there are typically fewer students then. We also began by using the more basic features until we felt more comfortable working in the program.

Q: What advice can you share about choosing an electronic database provider?

A: Every disability services office is different. Look at what’s out there and make a choice based on your office’s individual needs. For example, we wanted something with a comprehensive proctoring component, and AIM offers that. Also, don’t settle for one that just doesn’t feel right, because there are many of these vendors out there now. Look for something that’s very user-friendly and intuitive to navigate.

For more information, you may contact Tom Merrell at merrellt@usfca.edu. Check out AIM at www.accessiblelearning.com.

 

Coversation With: Paul D. Grossman
10/30/2014 12:00 AM
Image of Paul D. Grossman
Paul D. Grossman

Paul D. Grossman is a retired chief regional attorney for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He is currently a disability law consultant and adjunct professor of disability law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. This is the second of a two-part Q&A session with him.

Paul D. GrossmanPaul D. Grossman is a retired chief regional attorney for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He is currently a disability law consultant and adjunct professor of disability law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. This is the second of a two-part Q&A session with him.

Q: What advice would you give novice disability services coordinators to help them avoid noncompliance issues?

A: When I ask whether people have read the Section 504 regulations that pertain to postsecondary institutions, I’m surprised at how many have never read them. So the first thing is to read the regulations and the appendices that go with them. I also strongly believe that every disability services office should be subscribing to Disability Compliance in Higher Education. The information your publication provides is invaluable.

It’s equally important to seek out training, either through the national Association on Higher Education And Disability or one of the regional AHEAD affiliates. For those who have responsibilities more in line with Americans with Disabilities Act officers, the National Association of ADA Coordinators offers excellent training. My law school textbook co-author, Professor Ruth Colker, and I are in the process of publishing through AHEAD those portions of our book that pertain to postsecondary disability law. This will make an excellent primer for disability services personnel, and it will be available in accessible formats including DAISY, which I believe is a first for a law school textbook.

As a group, disability support services personnel are very close and willing to share information. Look around to see who is in that role at the nearest colleges and reach out to them.

OCR offices are happy to take calls from DSS staff members who want some free advice. I never refused a call, even when the person didn’t say what institution she was at. OCR can also provide some formal technical assistance under the right situation. For example, if 10 colleges wanted to sponsor a day to interact with OCR folks and ask questions on designated topics, OCR is likely to participate.

Finally, many schools have house or contract counsel. In my experience, it’s important to check in with them. In my career with OCR, college counsels were often a constructive key to resolving complex matters.

Q: Beyond compliance, what advice can you share for creating a more welcoming campus environment?

A: There would be no disability rights but for the sacrifices and accomplishments of those individuals who fought for equality on the basis of race, national origin and sex. Nonetheless, I always feel badly when administrators and others who value civil rights and diversity on these bases somehow fail to appreciate disability as another important element of diversity. By placing services for students with disabilities into the broader civil rights perspective, the needs of these students are more likely to be understood and appreciated. The ultimate goal should be support for universal design, something that promotes student achievement for everyone.

My brother, Richard, had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When he was told he had six months to a year to live, he made the very unexpected decision to enter law school. He graduated and passed the New Jersey Bar Exam and then passed away. When I was with him at hospice, I asked him whether spending his limited time attending law school was a mistake. He said, “When you’re dying, there are things you slowly can’t do or can’t do like everyone else. But as long as you can read, write, think, debate and analyze, you’re still a human being.”

We may recognize that a few individuals with disabilities may never be employable, but we must still make it possible for them to have those educational experiences that make life fulfilling.

For more information, Paul D. Grossman can be reached at paulgrossman@comcast.net.

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  • Meet the Editor

    Cynthia Gomez
    Managing Editor

    Cynthia Gomez has been the editor of Disability Compliance for Higher Education since 2005 and has covered higher education for more than a decade. She has also written and edited pamphlets and books on a variety of disability-related topics.
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