Lighting the tower blue

Arkansas State University recognized World Autism Awareness Day by lighting the Dean B. Ellis Library Tower blue on Friday.

JONESBORO — By lighting the Dean B. Ellis Library Tower blue on Friday, Arkansas State University recognized Friday World Autism Awareness Day while simultaneously announcing the launch of a mentoring service for online students on the spectrum.

Nationwide, there has been a rise in college students diagnosed with autism, said Thilla Silverman, interim vice-chancellor for enrollment management. One in every 59 students is on the autism spectrum, he said.

“I thought, ‘How can I help our online students who have high-functioning autism,’” Silverman said.

Administrators at A-State wanted to create a program with the goal of providing a support system for students seeking two or four-year degrees, he said. The university coined the service EduCare, set to kick off during the fall 2021 semester.

“As students in Arkansas school districts are aging out of the system, many of them are looking to seek a degree,” director Kerry Tew said. “Autistic students need skills such as basic life skills, learning how to pace themselves, and learning how to interact with others.”

“The College of Nursing and Health Professions, specifically the occupational health professions, is helping us put together a mentoring program from their clinical perspective,” she said, noting that the department’s students are serving as mentors for EduCare students.

Marketing the mentorship program to occupational health professions students is a natural fit, said Andrea Brown, program director for the occupational therapy assistant program.

“Our students are already learning those roles in the current curriculum,” Brown said. “The academic piece is only one part of the puzzle for EduCare students. We will have four pillars of focus – education, social competency, community living skills and career preparedness.”

Tew said some of the key areas the program will focus on is making sure online students acquire and develop those skills which will make them job-ready upon graduation. When students enroll in the program, she said there will be a set of tests conducted to determine what skill sets have been achieved and what skill sets still need work.

She also plans to address community living skills, household management and financial literacy, she said.

“Those soft skills, like can you communicate, do you know how to dress professionally, can you speak professionally,” Tew said. “We will learn certain skills each year, so EduCare students know what is happening. ... I think one of the highlights of the EduCare program is that EduCare students would be able to complete their academic work within a context that provides an environment where they are comfortable.”

Tew said the COVID-19 pandemic has taught educators there are many ways to communicate with online students. “I plan on having one-on-one Zoom meetings and will be Face-timing; the mentors will as well.”

The College of Nursing Professions and the Access and Accommodations Services department are also assisting with the program. The latter has an established program for on-campus students on the spectrum, said Dominique White, senior associate director.

“Students typically meet with their mentor once a week for approximately 30 minutes to an hour to discuss academic, social and personal goals for the semester. We are in the process of expanding this program to take on more of a social life skills component, which is especially important for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” she said.

White said her program does not normally cater to online students.

“EduCare will cater to online students on the autism spectrum. This gives online students a great opportunity for that mentorship piece that they might be missing but need,” White said.

Tew said the bottom line is to give autistic students the skills to succeed.

“We want to create a level playing field,” she said.