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Student Affairs Role in Serving Autistic Students: The College Autism Network Partners with NASPA

Health, Safety, and Well-being Student Success Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Disability Knowledge Community Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Health, Safety, and Well-being Initiatives Wellness and Health Promotion
November 20, 2019 Lee Burdette Williams NASPA

Lauded by autistic self-advocates, families, and educators for its relevance and insight about neurodiversity, “Atypical” is a Netflix series that follows Sam, a young man with autism. The third and current season, finds Sam entering college. “Atypical” is a funny, poignant and accurate portrayal of both an individual and an environment that are not always a good fit for one another. A television show about someone with autism is no longer novel (see The Big Bang TheoryCommunity and The Good Doctor), and neither is the presence of individuals with autism on our campuses. 

Each year, more students with a formal diagnosis of autism, or with characteristics that meet those criteria, enroll in college. These are students whose intelligence, unique perspectives and resilience contribute to their campus communities. But these are students whose attrition rate is higher than their neurotypical peers. Our efforts to support and encourage them in their academic pursuits, however, have not always kept up with their determination to succeed.  

In 2016, Brad Cox, a professor of higher education at Florida State University, founded the College Autism Network (CAN), a non-profit organization with a three-part mission to promote research about college students with autism, to provide training for faculty and staff who interact with them, and to advocate for institutions to figure out what it means to be “autism-friendly.” In its three years of existence, CAN has made significant strides in each of these areas. But there are limits to what a small organization staffed by volunteers can do. Eventually, if the need is obvious and the potential is promising, a new model must emerge. 

NASPA is pleased to announce that beginning in January, the College Autism Network will become a NASPA initiative. We are excited to build a relationship with CAN and its members, most of whom are professional staff at campus-based and independent programs supporting students with autism who want to succeed in college. And we are excited, too, to bring to NASPA’s members a promise to extend that support beyond those specific programs, to enlist the efforts of student affairs professionals in all areas of higher education. 

NASPA members can look forward to the kind of high-quality professional development about autism that CAN has provided at conferences, in webinars, in publications, and on individual campuses. And CAN’s members will benefit from the broad perspective, technical assistance, and planning expertise that NASPA has demonstrated in similar partnerships. 

What might it mean for institutions of higher education to pursue neurodiversity with the same fervor we see in the pursuit of other kinds of diversity? What might it mean for NASPA to provide a platform, broad and tall, for those who do this work? To help autistic students challenge us to become places where autism is recognized, accepted, appreciated, celebrated? How might the lives of neurodiverse students be impacted by this support and, in turn, impact our campus communities? How can NASPA’s reach and reputation help CAN harness the power of the autistic mind and the work of those who see its value in our world?

The College Autism Network uses the phrase “Together, we CAN” to remind itself of the importance of diligence, of creativity, of commitment to this effort. As Brad Cox wrote in his announcement of this partnership, “Together, we CAN maximize the likelihood that students with autism enter, persist and graduate from college. We CAN help autistic students feel confident that they have the personal qualities and institutional support necessary to succeed in college. We CAN ensure colleges and universities are responsive to autistic students’ specific needs, appreciate their distinct perspectives, and highlight the unique contributions these students can make to their institutions, their fields of study, and society at large.”

Together, NASPA and CAN will make a difference in the lives of students with autism and the institutions they call home. We hope you will join us.