Marquette University Introduces New Program to Assist Students With Autism

May 17, 2018

As the current academic year wraps up at colleges and universities around the country, one area school is already preparing to make college life a success for a particular group of students in the fall of 2019. 

Students with autism spectrum disorders can have particular challenges in a college environment, away from the safety net of relatives and friends.  A Marquette professor and researcher who specializes in autism spectrum disorders are behind the innovative program, called “On Your Marq,” which will serve 8-10 students in its first year.

Associate professor of psychology at Marquette, Amy Van Hecke, says that while Wisconsin has a long and positive history of supporting children with interventions and other programs, that by law ends once a student graduates from high school.

"You graduate and you drop off the map, and you're still around and you still have autism and you still need supports. And you particularly need those supports to make those big jumps into educational opportunities and then into the work force," she explains.

"It's particularly those people (with autism) without an intellectual disability that have the poorest outcomes, which is kind of counter to what the rest of the disability world thinks." - Amy Van Hecke

On Your Marq focuses on the unique ways autism interacts with the college experience and addresses needs not covered by the school's formal accomodation. Additional support in areas such as time management, study skills, planning, communication and social skills, as well as help with living independently can make a vast difference for a student.

"Even if a school has tutoring or has supports in place, actually calling and getting that connection set up is really really challenging for someone on the spectrum," notes Van Hecke.

"A program like this may be the difference between somebody leading a happy and fulfilling life in which their special brain gifts are added to society, and ending up sitting in their parent's basement," adds clinical assistant professor of educational policy and leadership, Mary Carlson.

Students with autism that enter college either take much longer to graduate, or they don't graduate at all according to Van Hecke. "They also experience a lot of mental health concerns while in college - stress, depression, anxiety."

While the lack of further education and supports are contributing factors to the 81% unemployment rate for adults with autism, approximately half of individuals on the spectrum do not have an intellectual disability.

"It's particularly those ones without an intellectual disability that have the poorest outcomes, which is kind of counter to what the rest of the disability world thinks," says Van Hecke.

Thanks for a grant from John and Kate Miller, On Your Marq students will be assigned a point person, a graduate student advisor to support independent living, social skills and academics, and additional peer mentors will be available to help students on the spectrum suceed in college.

Van Hecke says that making Marquette's campus even more inclusive will not only benefits the students who can enroll because of the program, but will enrich the greater community.

"We're helping these students achieve their full potential, we're realizing the generous and really wonderful ideas of a donor, we're realizing a dream we've had more many years - but let's also educate the rest of the students," she says.