To kick off the new school year, Eastern Illinois University’s Autism Center started a transitional program for incoming college students with autism spectrum disorders to help students navigate the college environment. The program, called Students with Autism Transitional Education Program, STEP, is the only one of its kind offered in the state.
Gail Richard, the director of EIU’s Autism Center, said the program enhances the collegiate experience for students with autism spectrum disorders by providing assistance to students with the social, daily and academic skills they need to transition into college. Students with autism spectrum disorders have difficulties with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
The STEP program is designed to minimize the challenges faced by these students once they leave home for the first time. “These are usually very bright individuals, yet they need structure and social skills,” said Richard, who has worked with children with autism spectrum disorders for more than three decades.
The program breaks down social barriers and gives students an opportunity to succeed, she said. Each student is assigned a mentor, who is a senior or graduate student in EIU’s communication disorders and sciences program. The mentors will personally help students navigate the university by taking them on tours of campus and to monthly social events such as theater productions or athletic events.
Students enrolled in the program had an early move-in date before the hustle and bustle of the school year started up, which helped with a calmer transition, Richard said. Students are also required to attend academic study tables and regular support groups throughout the school year. Study tables are located in the same residence hall that students live in. Richard describes the program as intensive and extensive with services and personal mentorship well beyond what is required of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The program is offered through EIU’s Autism Center, which is an expansion of the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic that serves families with children with autism spectrum disorders. The program will cost $1,000 per semester.