+ Ohio College Works With Autistic Teens, Families

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Defiance College, near Toledo Ohio, has launched a program to educate teens with autism, support their families and provide “best-practice” education to undergraduate and graduate students.

Begun in 2007, the Hench Autism Studies Program (HASP) is addressing the need for “better and more integrated services for late adolescent with autism who are challenged by sensory issues, communication problems and interpersonal interactions,” a spokesperson says.  In addition, it will work to provide services for familites.

According to Catharine O’Connell, PhD, vice-president for academic affairs, there aren’t many resources for adolescents with autism. 

After initial meetings to discuss creating the program, Defiance discovered it had people in different disciplines who had worked in special education, MRDD and other related areas.

“When we all got together, we found we had a fair amount of expertise in the room,” O’Connell said.

The program was created through a collaboration between Defiance College, area school districts (chiefly the Northwest Ohio Educational Service Center), Bittersweet Farms of Whitehouse Ohio, and philanthropists Eric and Deb Hench, parents of a son with autism.

The multi-faceted program includes:

  • A specialized on-campus, public high school classroom for late adolescents with autism.
  • A resource and referral center for families of children and adults with autism.
  • Specialized training for undergraduate students to have peer interaction with students with autism.
  • Focused coursework for undergraduate social work majors and additional training for licenses social workers.
  • A new licensure within the Master of Arts in Education Program for Intervention Specialist, Mild and Moderate K-12, with an emphasis in autism.

Eric Hench, a Defiance resident and a member of the college’s board of directors, and his wife, Deb, helped make this program happen.  He said that frustration about reaching the resources needed for his son, Jon, was the impetus in his mind. 

Resources for Jon, when he was younger, were minimal, said Mrs. Hench.  As he grew older, they were almost non-existent.

Most of the therapists Jon needed were not available locally, and the constant traveling was a “big-time investment.”

At present, Jon is living at Bittersweet Farms, making a smooth transition from living at home.

The college’s mission to provide service learning led the Henches to discuss creating an autism program there.  Hench would like the program to bring students who are pursuing teaching or other applicable career choices “up to speed” when working with students who have autism.  

Wendy Nashu, a special education supervisor for the Northwest Ohio Educational Service Center, said the new program’s public school classroom serves students 15 years old and up.  The on-campus classroom has two students at the moment, with room for several more.

She says the program is “a new approach in assisting students to transition into the larger community.”

Nashu works with a team of professionals, including an occupational therapist, speech therapist, adaptive physical education teacher, psychologist, classroom teacher and a paraprofessional classroom aide.

Defiance College has provided a safe environment to work in, and has proven to be a great opportunity for the students [with autism] to work with peer-aged students, said Nashu.

For instance, teachers and students in the HASP classroom have created a business, “Bumble Bean Coffee,” to sell coffee, beverages and baked goods on campus.  This project helps students with autism develop business and communication skills.

Freshman Alaina Hammond, is involved in the program’s peer mentoring group.  She and others who collaborate with the students who have autism  have begun to help them become better equipped at negotiating the “unspoken rules” of communication.

She and her classmates have also worked among the residents of Bittersweet Farms in order to gain experience.

Although autism manifests in many different ways, “often, they are just different in the way they speak and reason,” said Hammond.  “They think in pictures sometimes.”    

Defiance College (www.defiance.edu) is located in the town of Defiance, Ohio, an hour from the larger cities of Toledo and Lima.  Learn about Bittersweet Farms at www.bittersweetfarms.org.

sole source: article in the Toledo Free Press online, by Autumn Lee on 12/22/07; www.toledofreepress.com

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