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Autism support on campus good, but still room for improvement

Autism prevalence has been ever so steadily increasing worldwide. In fact, according to the CDC, the diagnosis rate grew from 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 44 in 2018.

This increase is likely due to immense improvements in analytic and screening tools, better awareness by parents and changes in qualifying criteria. Still, adults with autism account for approximately 9% of all U.S. adults with some type of disability. 

NMSU’s Autism Diagnostic Center and the Disability Access Services are two departments that support autistic children, teenagers and adults in one way or another. 

The NMSU Autism Diagnostic Center is located in Room 026 across from Subway in the O’Donnell Hall basement. (Photo by Daniel Sosa/Kokopelli)

The ADC is an on-campus organization that comprises several New Mexico psychologists, language pathologists, therapists, social workers and pediatricians. The team cooperates by diagnosing autism in multiple age groups from 18 months to 17 years.

Before the ADC arrived at NMSU, parents wanting to evaluate their children would be on a waitlist for about two and a half years for an appointment at an autism diagnostic center in Albuquerque. 

With funding from a couple of grants from New Mexico senators including Mary Kay Papen, however, a new diagnostic center in Las Cruces was established in 2019. The center is affiliated with NMSU, enabling its founders to team up with faculty members in the Department of Communication Disorders. 

Celebrating the Spectrum was the ADC’s most recent community event. The event united many Las Cruces families on April 2 for an afternoon of pizza and drinks. Children also had a chance to engage in low and high-stimulation activities and listen to a live performance by the Centennial High School band. The main purpose of this event is what NMSU communication disorders social worker Kali Hall described as a way for all children to enjoy themselves in both quiet and loud environments.

“We’re planning the community events so that children with autism can have fun just like every kid could have fun,” Hall said. Hall also worked with adults worried about parenting their autistic children and said she believes the ADC is a long-awaited organization with a lot of growth potential.

The evaluation process involves meeting with a speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, social worker, pediatrician and psychologist. A questionnaire is provided to parents and then an interview with the parents is conducted. Afterward, the team looks at the child’s IQ deficiencies and learning disabilities while measuring their expressive and receptive language.

As for treatments, the ADC offers resources for students, as well as several emotional and financial support groups for parents and caregivers. The center uses the PEERS curriculum developed at UCLA for autistic teenagers. The program is intended to improve social skills and help students participate in recreational activities. All children are then referred to other local resources such as the NMSU Disability Access Services office. 

Las Cruces families eat pizza and socialize during a “Celebrating the Spectrum” event at Preciado Park, Saturday, April 2, 2022, on the NMSU main campus. The NMSU Autism Diagnostic Center hosted the event. (Photo by Daniel Sosa/Kokopelli)

ADC personnel are well aware of caregiver exhaustion from guardians of autistic children, so the department gives parents an opportunity to be a part of new diagnosis groups where they can learn about potential resources and get emotional support from other parents in similar situations.

The ADC also offers RUBI parent training. After several successful clinical trials, Dr. Karen Bearss’ 16-week RUBI Parent Training program aims to help parents reduce their children’s misbehavior at home. The program has been proven to be most effective in face-to-face small group formats.

As for NMSU’s Disability Access Services, a recognizable portion of its applicants are diagnosed with some sort of autism. According to DAS staff, approximately 3% of 1,366 applicants since spring 2018 are on the autism spectrum.

While the number of applicants with autism is relatively low, Aaron Salas, director of DAS, said they are still treated the same as other people with disabilities. Salas has worked in Child Protective Services and public schools back and forth in California and New Mexico for over a decade.

With applicants being in different spots on the autism spectrum, assistance really varies for each person. For low-end spectrum students with social anxiety, for example, classroom participation — a fundamental principle of college success — seems to be a constant chaotic hassle.

Fortunately, DAS provides a private area for students to take their tests with more ease. “I think every autistic student probably does use our testing center where there’s less stimulus and they could control the environment more,” Salas stated.

A girl plays a set of drums at the “Celebrating the Spectrum” event Saturday, April 2, 2022, at Preciado Park on the NMSU main campus. The event united many Las Cruces families for an afternoon of pizza and drinks. Children also had a chance to engage in low and high-stimulation activities and listen to a live performance by the Centennial High School band. The NMSU Autism Diagnostic Center hosted the event. (Photo by Daniel Sosa/Kokopelli)

The DAS team has also implemented a few software programs that help students with multitasking troubles — especially those with ADHD — focus on lectures. Using Otter.ai, the instructor’s voice is recorded and transcribed into text that is archived for the user to read later. The astounding software can also distinguish multiple speakers, memorize their voices and transcribe photos.

While Otter.ai is the most popular note-taking software among DAS applicants, the staff also offers LiveScribe pens that transcribe what the user is writing. In extreme cases, where software isn’t enough for a student, in-person notetakers take the helm. However, these two other options are outweighed by DAS’ technological services.

“So we chose to go with software where they don’t have to write it ’cause that’s the same thing as taking notes and keeping focus,” Salas explained.

Along with text-to-speech and speech-to-text applications, autistic students are also entitled to private dorm rooms and their own pet to rely on for emotional support.

NMSU student and KRWG News 22 anchor Victor Fierro, 22, has autism, and indicated he believes the services offered at NMSU are good. “I believe the accommodations are really good. It can be difficult for some people to stay focused and [they] might not understand some material,” he said.

Fierro previously attended El Paso Community College and applied for help at the Center for Students with Disabilities while at EPCC. Fierro transferred to NMSU last year to study journalism and has avoided taking any accommodations since arriving on campus. His reason for this was actually not due to any bad quality of services from DAS, however.

“I know [DAS] offer[s] all these kinds of accommodations so that they could help you, but I didn’t really want to have any of that just ’cause I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to be like everyone else, you know,” Fierro explained. 

The DAS office is likely to remain on campus for a long time. That is not to say that success for every student is always guaranteed, though.

High school special education substantially differs from college and university accommodations. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act only guarantees individualized education programs to students before they graduate from high school. With that restriction in place, DAS cannot manipulate or arrange exemptions from any tests or assignments for people with disabilities.

Given these limitations, following up with autistic students before and after they graduate should be necessary to evaluate whether they are succeeding.

The DAS team’s end goal may seem geared toward getting university students the services they need, but Salas said they are implementing more evaluative procedures in the near future and that capturing grade performance data could be beneficial, too.

“It depends ’cause a lot of it is self-reported. We haven’t pulled data on GPAs. That’s something that we’re interested in doing,” Salas stated. 

As for the ADC, staff members hope to team up with DAS to expand their services to the adult student population. ADC personnel also said they will collaborate with NMSU athletics to host an autism awareness softball game later this month. The ADC has also recently been sponsored by NMSU’s Glass Family Research Institute for Early Childhood Studies.

The future for people with autism on campus does seem bright as NMSU’s autism support resources are actively expanding from spreading awareness and understanding the disorder to helping autistic students strive for and achieve success.

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