Promoting Academic Success for College Students with Asperger’s Syndrome and Other Executive Functioning Challenges

As leaves crunched beneath my feet on a trail up Camel’s Hump Mountain last weekend, I realized that fall has begun and that we are moving into yet another magnificent hiking season.  Each season brings with it new challenges, and each trail provides a new perspective of the mountain.  The mud of spring, the heat of summer, the slippery leaves of fall, and the ice and snow of winter remind me that while the mountain may be the same, the challenge is always different.

Our students all come to us trying to climb the same mountain, that being the mountain toward college success.  The trail up the mountain and the features encountered along the way, however, are completely dependent upon the student.  One student may be facing a rock-covered trail, another a fresh snowfall, and still another a sweat-inducing climb.  Through the lens of the executive functioning challenges that our students face, the rocks may be time management, the snow may be problem-solving, and the climb might be self-advocacy.

In supporting students with Asperger’s Syndrome who are making the transition from high school to college, we understand the fear, trepidation, or anxiety one faces upon realizing that the mountain to climb in college is different than in high school.  In college, students are expected to manage their own schedules, balance priorities and expectations, and make decisions about their future, tasks that are often managed for them in high school.  For students with Asperger’s Syndrome and other executive functioning challenges, the mountain often seems insurmountable, yet once students are able to build capacity for success, the climb feels refreshing and the view is awe-inspiring.

Students at Mansfield Hall come from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of diagnoses, and with varied interests and strengths.  Many have one thing in common, though, being that their path up the mountain is often clouded by executive functioning challenges.  This means that they may struggle to make plans, keep plans, conceptualize time, manage time, multi-task, self-reflect, engage with groups, solve problems, and other tasks that one must rely on to maintain a functional and productive life. Many students who have executive functioning challenges are supported by IEP, 504, or EST coordinators in high school.  Not only are executive functioning challenges exacerbated by the nature of the college experience, these support professionals are not as pervasive.

At Mansfield Hall, we have developed a list of what we believe to be the core academic skill areas in which one must develop capacity to be successful at the college level.  Our academic programming is based on these skills areas and we work with our college students with Asperger’s Syndrome to develop learning goals that center around building capacity in one or more of these skill areas that the student believes they need support with.  The list is as follows:

● Writing Skills

● Reading Comprehension

● Note Taking Skills – Lecture

● Organizational Skills

● Time Management Skills

● Self-Advocacy Skills

● Assistive Technology

● Group Collaboration Skills

● Classroom Participation

● Public Speaking

● Exam Preparation

● Healthy Study Habits

As is the case with all facets of our program, we meet our students “where they are at”.  To say that all of our students will be ready to transition out of Mansfield Hall into full matriculation in one semester, two semesters, three semesters or even four semesters would be an unfair assumption.  When we begin working with a student we look at where they are on the mountain, how high the peak is, and what we need to do together to identify, create, and clear the path.  Sure, for some students this might be one semester.  For others, it might be longer.

We believe that once a student has built capacity in these areas they will be ready for greater independence at the college level and beyond.  With student-driven goals formulated with this list as a guide, students take steps toward independence at a pace that makes sense for them.  To expect a student to tackle all of these skills at once is not to expect success.  When a student can come to understand the importance of building capacity and comprehend the relationship between these skills and their ultimate goal of a successful, productive, independent life, the trail widens, the rocks disappear, and the path to the top of the mountain becomes clear.