[caption id="attachment_1475" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Image courtesy of Sheela Mohan"][/caption] Students with autism spectrum disorders are usually very fortunate in their K-12 education. Throughout the past few decades, knowledge about the disorders and pressure from the private and public sector has made it possible for a child with autism to receive a high school education tailored to his or her own needs. Through special education research, the learning styles of autistic children have been unlocked and, in many mild cases of the disorder and even some severe cases, the true genius of these children has been allowed to shine. However, higher education, with its tuition-based funding and non-mandatory status, has struggled to keep up with K-12 when it comes to offering autistic students the opportunity for a college degree. As a college educator, I have had only one student in all of my classes who could be called autistic (she has Asperger’s). Though this student was really a good writer and received a passing grade in my class, she wasn’t really able to engage in her education they way that she needed to. I had a class of 25 students that all needed “traditional” instruction and no training on how to integrate special educational needs at the classroom level (I am only certified as a special needs tutor, which is a different deck of cards). Never mind that there is no book on how to teach special needs students in the college classroom available; most teachers don’t even receive training on how to teach mainstream students for that matter. But this is all about to change at one school in New York… A Degree for Autistic Children The Sage Colleges of Albany, New York are ranked among some of the best private educational institutions in the northeast. Among the schools that make up The Sage Colleges is the Esteves School of Education. It is there that the idea for a new program called Achieve was born in the mind of Dana R. Reinecke, PhD, BCBA-D. Dr. Reinecke is the director of Sage’s online master’s program in Applied Behavioral Analysis & Autism. Dr. Reinecke believed that the ability to perform at the college level was there for many students on the autism spectrum, what was missing was a program designed to meet their needs. Achieve is a 4-year online Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies with an added emphasis in Computer Science applications designed to develop skills that will be in demand after graduation. Under Dr. Reinecke’s supervision, each course is tailored for the specific students in the program. Each educational path is designed to meet the needs of that student in a freeform approach to education that seeks to eliminate the normal “triggers” for autistic individuals (bright colors, flashing designs, unfamiliar faces, etc.). Students in the Achieve program take classes in six, eight-week terms throughout each year. For each term in the first two years of study, students are required to take one 3-credit academic course and one 1-credit life skills course which emphasizes skills such as finance, independent living, interviewing, and online study skills specifically geared at further educating autistic students about the requirements of everyday life after school. Once the first two years are complete, students will take two 3-credit academic courses each term, leading to a 120-credit degree in four years. Achieve students go to school year round. In addition, each student is assigned a faculty mentor who is trained in assisting autistic students. This mentor stays with the student throughout their four years, offering advice and counseling as needed as well as feedback designed to help the student learn how to learn at the college level and beyond. The degree program is the first of its kind and admitted its first students this past January. Five students started the program, which is capped at 15 students per year. Students can begin study in either January or September. This ensures that each student has access to the support he or she needs throughout their time at The Sage Colleges. About The Sage Colleges The Sage Colleges are a group of three colleges, two undergraduate and one graduate, located in and around Albany, NY. Their flagship campus, Russell Sage College, is an all-women’s institution that was founded in 1916, which consistently ranks among the highest of private institutions in the northeast. In addition, Sage College of Albany, a co-educational campus, offers degrees to men, the Sage Graduate School, which includes the Esteves School of Education, the School of Health Sciences, and the School of Management, are also co-educational.
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