DEFIANCE, Ohio – Emma Bedan didn't expect her college experience would be bustling with social activities such as cheerleading, sorority events and a dance marathon.
The junior from Cincinnati arrived at Defiance College as a shy freshman, gradually becoming more outgoing, confident and social. She credits the ASD Affinity Program for contributing to her evolution.
Now in its fourth year, the Affinity Program helps college students with ASD – autism spectrum disorder – reach their full potential. It has received recognition from college-ranking website Best Value Schools, which placed Defiance sixth on a list of the 20 best colleges for students with autism for 2017-18. The University of Alabama, the University of West Florida and Mercyhurst University topped the list.
The Affinity Program contributed to Bedan's decision to attend Defiance, which is about an hour from Fort Wayne in northwest Ohio.
“The people were so nice here,” she said.
As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges.
Research has highlighted the need for better resources for young adults with autism after high school graduation. One study found about 35 percent of people with autism immediately go on to college.
The Affinity Program – which doesn't necessarily comprise every student with autism at Defiance College – encompasses the academic, social and residential aspects of college. It is intentionally small, with a current enrollment of seven.
“We can provide more intensive services because we are small,” said Clarissa Barnes, director of the Hench Autism Studies Program and assistant professor of special education at Defiance, a private school.
Sophomore Sam Stofferahn came to Defiance after an unpleasant experience at another college. He learned of the Affinity Program in his search for a more autism-friendly campus.
“I love it,” Stofferahn said, adding he regrets not enrolling sooner.
Stofferahn particularly likes the supportive environment, which includes encouragement from fellow undergrads. On bad days, he can go to Affinity Program coordinator Becca Rupp or a counselor. Last spring, his anxiety worsened, and he missed about two months of class.
“They pulled out all the stops” to help him succeed, he said.
Those in the Affinity Program pursue whichever major interests them, live in student housing and participate in activities and organizations.
Senior Tim Feasel, one of the original Affinity students, has participated in the music program as a chamber singer and as a percussionist in the pep band. Nick Eberly, a junior studying sports management, has played on the football team.
“They're highly engaged,” Rupp said.
Unlike peers, however, their schedule includes a noncredit course that addresses 16 categories of skills, including personal finance and those related to the workplace.
Eberly credits the Affinity Program for helping him become set for life after graduation. He has learned about banking, cleaning, job applications and obtaining an apartment.
A project in the noncredit course asks students to consider their living situation after college. They must find a home they can afford, based on their projected income and other expenses, including property taxes, furnishings and student loans.
Students suggested other options, including renting or getting a roommate, if buying a house would be unaffordable.
Rupp encouraged the students to have fun with the assignment. “But make it realistic,” she said.
After the school day, it's common for Affinity students to gather in their housing's common areas for game nights – a social regularity that surprised Barnes and Rupp.
“They pack this space out almost every night,” Rupp said, standing in one such area, where the games Uno and Apples to Apples are on a table.
Traditionally for upperclassmen, apartment-style housing allows students to have their own rooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen. The setup lets them practice independent living skills – cooking, cleaning, laundry – and rules posted in the common area make social guidelines concrete.
“The more structure, the better,” Rupp said.
Their housing is steps away from a previous living space now used as a living lab for Affinity students, who can go there to study or practice household skills, like cooking. Students have learned how to crack an egg and make meals that aren't microwave ready.
“The cooking sessions are really fun,” Rupp said, noting it gives students a chance to let their guard down.
Rupp has shared in students' successes, which have included making the dean's list and becoming more involved on campus. When possible, she shares the news with parents. Those can be emotional calls, she said, recalling a parent who wept because schools previously called to describe the child as a problem student who didn't work hard.
The victories, Rupp said, are “the best part.”
ASD Affinity Program
• Be 18 to 24 years old at initial enrollment
• Have a documented diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder; autistic disorder; Asperger's disorder; or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified
• Have an average intellectual ability
• Meet the college's academic admissions requirements
• Be independent with self-care and hygiene skills
• Be independent with medical administration
• Can stay overnight independently and complete all necessary daily living skills
• Have no documented incidents of aggressive behavior toward others or self-harm within the last five years
Source: Defiance College