Initiative Opens Doors

Initiative Opens DoorsSt. Norbert students living on the autism spectrum will benefit from new and key supports through a pilot program launched this year.

The initiative, unusual at an undergraduate institution, is a combination of individual counseling, social skills training and peer mentoring, says program leader Bruce Robertson, a licensed clinical psychologist and senior director of St. Norbert’s counseling and career programs.

The program is being supported with a $5,000 gift over the next four years from Camille (Coppens) Nicklaus ’87 and her husband, Todd. If the program grows over the next four years, the Nicklauses intend to endow it with a gift of $100,000.

One of the Nicklaus’ sons was diagnosed with Asperger’s – one of the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) – at age 4, and now at age 20 attends college in North Dakota. “When we were looking at colleges, it ran through our mind quite a bit ‘how would he do on his own?’ He is very high-functioning and is managing well, but it made us think about other parents and how stressful it is for them to leave their child at college,” says Camille.

Navigating college – dealing with social and academic pressures while living away from your parents, likely for the first time – can be tough. A disability that makes social interactions more challenging compounds any difficulties.

“For many of these students,” says Robertson, “this is the first time they are away from their parents and they need help with self-advocacy, emotional regulation, social functioning and getting involved on campus. We’re seeing a wave of students coming through now that were diagnosed when they were younger and had the benefit of resources and help in elementary and high schools. They need some support since their parents aren’t here to advocate for them.”

Todd says St. Norbert is an ideal fit for an ASD student support program. “It’s a comfortable place to be and the students – I think because it’s a Catholic college – are more understanding of differences,” he says. “St. Norbert’s is a welcoming campus and this program will help these students feel more at ease during their college experience, especially for those students who suffer from social issues.”

In the St. Norbert program, seniors majoring in sociology and focused on human services will serve as student mentors. Robertson says they’ll meet with students weekly to not only provide regular conversation – some people on the spectrum can become socially isolated – but to also answer questions and provide guidance. For the student mentors in the program, participation fulfills their internship requirement. It also affords them an opportunity typically only available to graduate students at larger research institutions.

“For some of these students [with autism], it would never occur to them to question a grade or if there’s something in the syllabus they’re uncomfortable with. We want them to advocate for themselves and their needs,” Robertson says. “We really want to help and be there for students before any kind of major crisis arises. We want them to be successful.”

April 17, 2015