The following opinion column by Michelle Morehouse appeared in the Owatonna People's Press on Sept. 5, 2023. Michelle is the Director of Career and Community Connections ?for Riverland Community College.
Embarking on an educational journey at any age can be an exciting time for students and educators alike. The presence of school supplies, school open house and registration events, and filled school parking lots are sure signs that the start of a new school year is here.
The mixed emotion that comes with this exciting time is something for many that can be contained through self-talk, spending time with friends and loved ones, or engaging in an enjoyable activity. What if self-regulation of these emotions wasn’t so easy to achieve? Imagine instead of excitement, having a fear of the unknown, mixed with abnormal social norms and executive functioning skills. For anyone that has loved someone exceptional in autism, this is all too familiar and something preparing yourself or a loved one for takes considerable time.
Primary and secondary education provide educational support for individuals with autism, through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team, but what happens at the post-secondary level? What tools and supports are available for exceptional individuals that embark on a post-secondary journey? What can educators do to best support learners with the unique and beautiful lenses that autism provides?
One of the transitions that occurs, for exceptional individuals, after high school and beginning with college, is the shift from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the IEP to the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The goals and objectives that come with the IEP at the primary and secondary education level, morph into modifications and accommodations that provide an equitable learning experience at the post-secondary education level.
Some students are eligible to take part in a transition program which provides them with support in the five areas of transition (Recreation and Leisure; Post-Secondary Education and Training; Employment Skills; Independent Living Skills; and Community Involvement). Through a transition program, students receiving services through an IEP can take part in programming that prepares them for life after high school. This is an incredible opportunity for exceptional students, up to age 22, previously 21 (Effective July 1, 2023, Minnesota Statutes, section 125A) to explore as they decide on post-secondary education and employment endeavors.
As educators at the post-secondary level, what can be done to best support exceptional students? Individuals exceptional in autism bring a unique and beautiful lens that can take growth mindset to a whole new level. Taking time to meet with the student to review learning style, and better understand accommodations and modifications is a positive move that promotes a successful and welcoming learning environment from the start. Connecting with disability/student services to create a success plan, and in some instances, connecting the exceptional student to a mentor that can be a consistent source of support.
It is important to note that it is a choice for individuals with disabilities to disclose that they have a disability. Choosing when and who to share this information with is up to the individual and is a choice that is protected by law. Students who do disclose their disability will receive reasonable accommodations that provide equal accessibility to college and university educational environments. It is not the educator’s responsibility to decide if a student has a disability but to meet each student where they are at and implement instructional strategies for success.
Working as an educator with exceptional students, in educational and employment settings, has been one of the most rewarding occupational journeys of my career. Resources for students, caregivers, and educators are plentiful. Some resources that have made my favorites list include: thinkcollege.net; and pacer.org. Caregivers and community resources become like family, sharing a mission and purpose to support post-secondary pathways that implement opportunities for all.