The Texas A&M University Division of Student Affairs will launch a learning community in fall 2018 that will connect students on the autism spectrum.
One of the few programs of its kind, the Spectrum Learning Living Community (LLC) will give students who are on the autism spectrum or who are interested in or in some way connected to the autism community a chance to live and learn together in Eppright Hall on the south side of Texas A&M’s campus.
Students who join the community will have the chance to learn and develop both academic and social skills by participating in specialized activities and events. The community will allow them to build friendships, gain a better understanding of the advantages and challenges facing students with autism, and introduce them to a community of students with similar interests.
Students may apply for Spectrum through the Texas A&M University Housing Portal.
Compared to similar programs at other universities, Spectrum will differ in that there will be no fees outside those of any other campus dorm. Other universities offer similar services that can cost up to $4,000 a semester in addition to tuition and other fees. The ultimate goal of Spectrum is to make Texas A&M a more inclusive campus for students.
“We couldn’t imagine anybody who would not benefit from being exposed to neurodiversity and learning more about autism through Spectrum LLC. Many students, particularly those who are pursuing special education, educational psychology, law and public advocacy, and political science, may benefit from participating in the community,” Carol Binzer, director of administrative and support services, Department of Residence Life said.
Filling a gap for Aggies with autism
Aimee Day, program coordinator for the Center on Disability and Development, became involved with the creation of Spectrum because of her active involvement in the autism community. As mother to 12-year-old Christopher Tynan, who has autism, Day has key insight into the struggles faced by those on the autism spectrum. From an early age, Ty knew that he wanted to attend college. Day believes that her son should have the opportunity to attend college regardless of his disability. Spectrum LLC will give students like Ty a chance to experience college life with other students who have autism, as well as those interested in learning more about it.
“When Ty was younger, I wasn’t quite sure that college was going to be a possibility because of the challenging social aspects of being a student,” Day said. “I felt that there was a missing piece in the services that universities provided for autistic students. Spectrum LLC will fulfill that gap and help students not only excel academically, but excel socially as well.”
An inclusive, innovative program
Along with making Texas A&M more inclusive, Spectrum also hopes to reduce the number of challenges that autistic students encounter on a university campus. Joe Hartsoe, access coordinator for Disability Services, said college students with autism struggle with acclimating to campus, navigating social situations, and trying to be academically successful in a rigorous academic environment. Hartsoe’s goal is to recruit up to 30 students to participate in Spectrum for the 2018-2019 academic year. They hope to achieve this goal by April 1, 2018, which is the deadline to apply to the program.
“Like all students, students with autism have difficulty finding social networks and social circles,” Hartsoe said. “But they perhaps find it even more challenging. I am excited about Spectrum because I believe that students with neurodiversity can and often make excellent students and community members.”
Students who are interested in the autism community are encouraged to participate in the new LLC. Hartsoe believes that Spectrum students will gain lifelong friends, build a supportive network on campus, and will have easier access to campus resources. Along with Disability Services, student organizations such as Aggies on the Spectrum and Autism Speaks U are both involved with the creation of Spectrum.
“We want all interested students to apply to live at Spectrum LLC,” Hartsoe said. “We know there is an opportunity for diverse learners to come together, including students without autism. They will find opportunities for peer mentorships that will develop valuable skill sets that will help them in the future.”
Sidney Coker ’18, a senior studying special education, believes Spectrum will help students learn how to better interact with people who have autism. Coker said she would eventually like to get involved because she knows that the program will benefit both her present college career and future as a special education teacher.
Coker is involved in Texas A&M’s Postsecondary Access and Training in Human Services (PATHS), a program that prepares individuals with intellectual disabilities for a career and independent living. She is also the philanthropy coordinator of the Student Council for Exceptional Children, an organization that fosters special education majors and helps them with professional development.
Her involvement with the special education community on campus led her to become part of the Spectrum LLC Advisory Committee, a group comprised of two students, one instructor from the College of Education and Human Development, and six Texas A&M staff members. The committee’s mission is to be a voice and advocate for individuals with disabilities on campus.
“You’re always going to run into people with disabilities,” Coker said. “I think it is a really great opportunity to learn about people who can make a difference in the world despite their disability. I know it is hard when you encounter someone with a disability because you sometimes are not sure how to communicate effectively. You have to learn how to ask the right questions and create an effort to understand their disability and try not to make them feel different.”
High-impact learning beyond the classroom
Thirty Texas A&M students have self-identified as being autistic through Texas A&M’s Disability Services, which is part of the Division of Student Affairs. The department facilitates resources for autistic students so they can be successful college students. However, there are likely many more Texas A&M students on the autism spectrum who choose not to self-identify or to utilize these services.
Spectrum LLC will provide inclusive, beneficial programming for these students in areas such as study skills, time management, daily routines, career planning, and internship practices. Ultimately, the program will work to build the confidence and self-esteem of autistic students, and an understanding that they are not alone in Aggieland.
“As a person with autism, I think that the Spectrum LLC will help because it is difficult for us to integrate socially in a college setting,” said Aaron Zajac ’20, a history major who is a member of the Corps of Cadets, Aggies on the Spectrum, and the Spectrum LLC Advisory Committee. “Living in an area with other autistic students would help them become more social and also help them get along better with their fellow peers because they don’t have to explain to people why they think a certain way.
“It was a great feeling when I discovered that other people at Texas A&M had disabilities and that I was not alone. If a program like Spectrum were around when I was a freshman, I would have realized much sooner that there were more people like me on campus.”
This story by Maggie Rians was originally posted on the Student Affairs website.
Media contact: Joe Hartsoe, access coordinator for Disability Services, firstname.lastname@example.org, 979-845-1637.