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Drexel Autism Support Program: A Unique Offering for Unique Learners

Drexel students Ben Fink, left, and Armon Owlia ’20, center, with DASP Director Amy Edwards. Photo courtesy Amy Edwards.

Aug 10, 2021

For neurodivergent students, the transition from high school — a familiar place with structured schedules during the day, and a support system and home life outside of school — to college can be a jarring transition. For those with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), a legal document with special education instruction for students in public school, and 504 plans, which ensure that a student in public school who has a disability receives accommodations for their academic success, the laws change between secondary education and higher education. Students are then eligible for accommodations rather than entitled to them. The onus is now on the student to find and request the help they need, all while managing their newly found independence as a college student.

“And you add that on top of, say, living somewhere new, living in a dorm with someone brand new, trying to figure out where your classes are, trying to figure out when to eat — there’s all of these moving parts,” said Drexel Autism Support Program (DASP) Director Amy Edwards, EdD.

Edwards knows this as the director of the Student Life service offering peer mentoring, coaching and other supports and resources that help neurodivergent Dragons adjust to and prepare for their Drexel experience, including classes, extracurricular activities, and co-op. She also knows this as an expert who completed her dissertation on autism in higher education. And, on a personal note, she knows this as a mother who struggled to help her oldest son, who is on the autism spectrum. He floundered for several years, losing several employment opportunities because he didn’t disclose his autism, and struggled through college classes because he didn’t ask for assistance or know how or where to get it. In her search for post-secondary opportunities and assistance for him, she realized how little information and support there was about programs for neurodivergent college students (an experience which inspired her to get an EdD).

The DASP program equips and helps students gain the tools and experience to navigate their educational, social and professional lives. This can mean anything and everything from, for example, navigating syllabi, schedules and Drexel Learn in the beginning of the student’s first year to meeting every week to create and go through task lists related to schoolwork, extracurriculars and, later on, co-op and employment. This personalized, one-on-one mentoring and coaching is a hallmark of DASP.

“People ask me what I do, and I say I kind of help students connect the dots,” said Edwards. “It’s more about breaking things into smaller steps so students understand what step comes next.”

Ben Fink, a health sciences senior in the College of Nursing & Health Professions, has been involved with DASP since he started at Drexel. He said the program has been helpful when he needed to set up accommodations and get his paperwork in order.

“I just appreciate them for all the support they’ve given me and helping me settle into college and transition between quarters and help with stuff with classes,” said Fink. “And I just appreciate having someone to talk to.”

Students can apply to the program after confirming their attendance at Drexel; they can be on the autism spectrum, or neurodivergent, which includes other conditions other than autism.

“If a student comes in and says they’re having a problem and that they need help, we are not going to ask for their paperwork and their diagnosis,” said Edwards. “We are just going to help them.”

This year, DASP will work with about 90 Dragons — a huge increase from the 10–20 students involved with the program when Edwards began overseeing it in 2017. The program was started in 2008 by a psychology professor as a peer-mentoring program for students to get credits in classes for helping their fellow students on the spectrum. But when the professor left the University, the program languished until Edwards, who was a research associate at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, took over.

DASP continues to have a peer mentoring component where upperclassmen are paired with newer students to meet once a week to discuss and work through anything the DASP student might be going through in their lives. Besides growing in size, DASP has also expanded in scope and the number of collaborations and support partners across the University. For example, the School of Education offers a neurodiversity course for new students in DASP to assist with the transition to University life. Then there’s the Steinbright Career Development Center, which has collaborated with DASP for several years to help neurodivergent students obtain co-op positions and employment. With the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, DASP also holds neurodiversity education workshops for faculty and professional staff to better work with and understand neurodivergent students; professional staff and officers from Public Safety, and Student Life (particularly those involved with residential living) take those trainings annually, and individual colleges, schools, departments, and other organizations can request those trainings as well.

DASP also collaborates with the Dragons Prep Program, which takes place the summer before a student’s first year to facilitate the transition to college life at Drexel, to onboard incoming students, and also works closely with students during their first term, especially, and first year at the University.

Throughout the students’ time at Drexel, DASP incrementally strengthens their confidence and ability to connect those dots and take those steps on their own.

“Later on, I kind of back off a little bit and say, ‘OK, you're going to write the task list. You're going to figure out what to do each for each class. I’m just here to help,’” Edwards said of working with students over time. “And then, DASP is meant to be a fading support program, so hopefully by senior year they're just coming back to say hello and not needing as much support so that they can go be gainfully employed.”

For students, the Neurodragons student organization offers social and extracurricular opportunities that are held in judgement-free environments. During the pandemic, with students primarily based off-campus, the group held “autism in the media” events watching and discussing television programs like “Atypical” and “The Good Doctor” featuring characters on the spectrum. 

For the fall, two classes of students will be coming to campus from mostly living at home and all living through a fraught time in the world’s history. It’s also a time of change for the other students, who mostly interacted virtually with DASP during the last two academic years. But Edwards will still be connecting the dots, as always, and helping students take the steps, one after the other, through their Drexel experience.

“We focus a lot on academic coaching. We focus a lot on social pieces. We focus a lot on employment,” said Edwards. “But everything’s kind of from a universal design perspective. Anything that we help our students with would really help any student.”

Check out the Drexel Autism Support Program website for more information about how to get involved with the program.