Just three years into the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM), organizers can barely keep pace with the demand for both its college program and its summer immersion experience for high school juniors on the autism spectrum.
Each succeeding freshman class since the first class of five AIM students arrived at Mercyhurst in 2008 has grown: six in academic year 2009-2010, seven in 2010-2011 and eight are enrolled for this fall. But it is the summer program for high school students aspiring to "test the waters" before embarking on a college career that has young people clamoring to get in.
"Our goal this summer was to recruit 10 high school students for our Foundations Program," said Dianne Rogers, director of Mercyhurst's Learning Differences Program. "We ended up capping enrollment at 22 and easily had 50 more who wanted to come in after deadline."
The Foundations Program, slated for July 7-30 on the Erie campus, is specifically designed for college-bound teenagers with Asperger Syndrome and high-functioning Autism Disorder. The program focuses on the development of skills necessary to succeed in college and includes therapeutic, learning and social components. Students will even earn three credits for successful completion of a college course.
The 22 enrollees hail from Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Connecticut and Maryland, with Rogers fielding calls from as far away as Idaho and Florida.
"It's been much more work than any of us could have expected, but the rewards of offering a college experience to students who have been repeatedly told they could never go to college is inspiring," she said.
Rogers has enlisted the support of 15 staff, many undergraduate and graduate students at Mercyhurst and the greater Erie community, allowing for a nearly 1-to-1 staff-to-student ratio. The social skills will be presented by consulting psychologist Janet Pawlowski, a local expert in autism spectrum disorders and founder of KaleidAScope.
Mercyhurst began its four-year college program for students with Asperger's in 2008, recognizing that more and more students with autism spectrum disorders are entering higher education and challenging schools to find ways to help them thrive in the college environment. Already a pioneer in educating students with learning disabilities through its Learning Differences Program, Mercyhurst stepped up to the challenge.
"This population of individuals is very bright, but they have challenges in social skills," Rogers said. "Given these challenges, we need not only to educate them but to work on their social and life skills so that they are able to negotiate the college community - everything from living in a dorm to time management."
Rogers started the summer program for high school juniors last year and is gratified by the response it has received, but not surprised.
"We know that within the next five years, one in every 100 college applicants will be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder," she said. "We saw the need to once again take a risk and assume a leadership role in college disability services. I think we made the right choice."
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