Digital artwork created by Project REACH participant Michael Giannola.

The Center for Student Accessibility (CSA), in conjunction with the Department of Psychology and the Department of Computer Science, embarks upon its second semester this month with a new program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and other disabilities. The initiative, funded by the FAR Fund, is called Project REACH.

Goals of the program include increasing campus awareness and knowledge about ASDs, providing academic, professional development, and career planning tools to students with ASDs and other disabilities, providing opportunities for social interactions and mentorship for individuals with ASDs and other disabilities, providing a rapid screening tool to identify students with high numbers of autistic traits who might benefit from further evaluation, and evaluating the impacts of these resources on the quality of life and academic success of students with disabilities.

The Project was pioneered by CSI faculty members Kristen Gillespie-Lynch and Patricia Brooks and then Center for Student Accessibility (CSA) Director Chris Cruz Cullari, along with Bertram Ploog, Deborah Sturm, and Nelly Tournaki.

Original artwork by Leonard Donegan.

Joanne D’Onofrio, now the Interim Director of the CSA, worked closely with Cullari during the vanguard of the project and sees the programming expanding this academic year.

The Project REACH program established an Autism Resource Center as well as Web-based supports in an effort to increase the academic, social, and professional success of students with ASDs. While the CSA has a strong foundation of support for the College community, using the tenets of most effective methods for students with ASDs, the Center will benefit from these additional resources.  The College of Staten Island is the CUNY college with the largest number of students with ASDs; more than 80 students at CSI are identified with ASDs, a notable increase from 2007 when only seven students with ASDs were registered. Students with ASDs face a variety of academic and social challenges. By helping students develop their self-advocacy and professional skills, Project REACH hopes to address many of the complex issues and needs that students, faculty, and staff face.

The Autism Resource Center, which serves as a hub of information for individuals with ASDs, faculty, and peers, is located in the Center for Student Accessibility (1P-101). The Resource Center features technology, books (such as autobiographies by people with ASDs and their family members), and informational DVDs and pamphlets about ASD resources, including internship and employment opportunities.

This past academic year, CSI Psychology Professor and ASD specialist Gillespie-Lynch worked directly with students with ASDs on academic advising and career planning, and also with faculty and peer mentors who work with individuals with ASDs. Project REACH provides professional development for faculty and staff to guide them in working more productively with students with ASDs.  It also pairs students with peer mentors who assist in connecting students with ASDs with resources across the campus, such as the Career and Scholarship Center, and beyond.

“By training faculty across academic departments, we hope to create a campus-wide team of faculty mentors who are knowledgeable about ASD and interested in meeting regularly with students with ASD. Training will increase the sensitivity of faculty members to the variety of difficulties students with ASD may face on campus and in the classroom, and will assist them in providing support to ensure students’ academic success,” noted Dr. Gillespie-Lynch, adding that a related goal is to provide training for CSI undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in working as academic tutors or peer mentors for students with ASDs.

The Website, including a mobile interface, is comprised of sections such as general information about ASDs, preliminary ASD screening, and a social calendar of the proposed new resource center’s events, as well as tutoring opportunities and workshops for students with ASDs and for faculty and peer mentors. The Resource Center is also used to develop a monthly calendar of synergistic activities and workshops.

“We have had a very successful first year hosting Project REACH, and I am very excited that CUNY has once again funded this collaborative effort with Dr. Kristen Gillespie-Lynch and the Psychology Department.  We will continue to work with other partners, including the Institute for Basic Research, Parent to Parent of NYS, and ACCES-VR Staten Island,” noted D’Onofrio. “Based on feedback from students during focus groups at the end of the spring term, the goal of the mentorship project for the fall of 2013 is to help students develop their self-advocacy and public speaking skills in group sessions, as well as optional one-on-one meetings, which will assist students in developing their academic and employment skills.”

Project coordinators continue to pursue grants from appropriate funding agencies to extend the project. Professor Brooks is also leading the project’s efforts to engage in a longitudinal study of students with ASDs in a college setting, examining the variables that impact students’ success and completion.

The CSA is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

For further information is available on the CSA’s Autism education page.