Notes from the field: Inclusive college models & tools for autistic students who have intellectual disabilities

STS is proud of our work to support autistic students in the college transition, particularly in STEM fields. Much of our content is geared for students whose main challenges may be less about academics and more about the significant shift in responsibilities, decision-making, and related skills that often require a new level of self-advocacy and awareness in college. That said, we receive outreach from families where the student may not be aiming for a two- or four-year academic path, but they are still looking for educational pathways that will help them reach their full potential.

In fact, our post “STEM Jobs That Don’t Require a Four-Year Degree” has been hugely popular, while our podcast on the inclusive Think College model has also garnered a lot of listens. Regardless of academic ability, there are simply many paths that can improve outcomes, from certificate to degree and beyond, and there’s no one right path for any autistic student or type of student.

That’s why I’m pleased to share this guest post from Cognitopiaa company that’s developed a suite of apps that support self-advocacy for intellectually disabled autistic studentsThey’ve partnered with two programs in Nevada, Project Focus in Las Vegas and P21 in Reno to support broader inclusion for all autistic students in higher education. This matters. A positive college experience increases other positive outcomes for both intellectually and non-intellectually disabled autistic students. Read on to learn more about these programs and how they’re making an impact. 

In October 2019, Cognitopia headed to Reno, Nevada to participate in the annual State of the Art Conference on Inclusive Postsecondary Education and Students with Intellectual Disabilities (SOTA).

As part of our ongoing research and development, we’re in year three of an ongoing partnership with two inclusive, two-year, non-degree postsecondary education certificate programs for students with developmental/intellectual disabilities:

Project FOCUS
Forming Occupational and Community Understanding for Success
University of Nevada Las Vegas
Path to Independence
University of Nevada Reno

These partnerships allow us to continue developing the Cognitopia platform for self-determination. We use a participatory design approach across ages, cognitive ability, and different life functioning domains so that usability issues are continually addressed. This ensures increased independence and ease of use of the technology. Often this means that, consistent with a universal design approach, alternate methods of representation other than text are used to facilitate accessibility.

P2I and Project FOCUS are two of 279 post secondary education (PSE) programs affiliated with Think College, a national organization dedicated to developing, expanding, and improving inclusive higher education options for people with intellectual disability. Think College is also a key sponsor of SOTA.

Program research shows students with intellectual/developmental disabilities who attend inclusive postsecondary education programs, like Project FOCUS and P2I:

  • Are 26% more likely to be employed;
  • Are employed in more non-traditional jobs (instead of fast food and janitorial);
  • Make 73% more in weekly wages; and
  • Successfully live independently more often than those who do not attend.
Project FOCUS / P2I interview at SOTA conference

We asked the folks at both universities to answer a few questions about their respective programs, the SOTA conference, and how technology like Cognitopia can be used to facilitate self-determination and independence on campus and in their daily lives.

1. How does Project FOCUS / P2I prepare young adults for transition into adulthood and employment?

Project FOCUS prepares young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities for transition into adulthood and employment in many ways. This all starts with a person-centered plan or a PCP. Similar to an individualized education plan, the PCP identifies long-term goals an individual might have. Then, the team develops a plan with short-term objectives to hopefully reach that goal. To address the transition into adulthood and employment, short-term goals are set in five areas: Career Development, Academics, Campus Engagement, Self-determination, and Independence.

Every student in Project FOCUS has a team that works with them, including an educational coach assigned specifically to work with them. Program interns are then assigned to work with specific students as well. The educational coach and intern build goals and begin to implement them with students. All students in Project FOCUS also complete specific classes around independent daily living and career development. In the daily living course, topics include disability, advocacy, voting, personal hygiene, healthy relations, communication, decision making, and sexuality. The structure of the career development course follows Pre-Employment Transition Services or Pre-ETS.

In addition to these courses, students work in various internships while in the program. When a student is working in an internship, they simultaneously register for an internship seminar. The seminar meets each week over the course of the semester and reinforces the Pre-ETS covered in the career development course as students work in real-world job experiences. Through these three courses and individual goal planning, Project FOCUS helps prepare students for adulthood and employment.

Through its collaboration with Vocational Rehabilitation (VR), P2I students create an Individual Plan for Employment (IPE). During the four semesters of the program, students prepare for integrated, competitive employment. An important aspect of college life for all students is learning to live independently. P2I staff assist each student to access community services that will lead to the desired independent living outcomes in the PCP. Each semester, one independent living class is provided to P2I students and is open to others in the community. Topics include Relationships & Sexuality, Self-Advocacy/Self-Determination, Money Matters, and Soft Skills to Pay the Bills.

The three main components of the program are:

  • Academics & Social Learning: Students in P2I take college classes based on a person-centered plan. Educational coaches attend classes with the students provide support with management of assignments and classwork, mentors are occasionally provided through the Developmental Disabilities minor program for additional social supports or extra assistance with homework, work-out buddies, and social opportunities like university clubs, organizations and events.
  • Independent Living: Students take one class per semester that focuses on independent living skills, such as Money Matters, Relationships & Sexuality, Steps to Self-Determination/Self-Advocacy, and Culinary skills/Healthy Eating habits.
  • Employment: Working in collaboration with Vocational Rehabilitation, P2I students learn pre-employment skills, participate in campus internships, and second year students have on-campus student employment. A job developer works with the students individually to secure competitive, integrated employment upon graduation.

P2I prepares students to lead independent lives in the community and is intended for students with goals that include working in competitive, integrated employment.

2. How do your programs incorporate technology for campus readiness, ePortfolios, goal setting, etc.?

Project FOCUS incorporates technology in a number of ways. We use the Cognitopia platform as a central hub for individual students. Each student has their own Cognitopia account, and we have structured Cognitopia around the five areas of the person-centered plan. Individual goals are created, implemented, and measured through the program. As time moves forward, individual goals are reviewed, and decisions are made based on data collected. Many items are used at routines, especially many items as the student transitions to college. These areas include campus navigation, registering for courses, acquiring a Rebel Card (the University Student ID card), creating various accounts (i.e., ACE, Canvas, Kurzweil, Rebel Access Portal, Rebel Mail), etc.

In addition to goals and routines, each student uses Cognitopia as the central planning and presentation tool in the person-centered planning process. The students use the ePortolio component, MyLife, to create presentations to share progress when individual teams meet. In addition to Cognitopia, Project FOCUS uses other aspects of technology throughout the program. Students use a text to speech software program called Kurzweil, where all textbook and assigned readings can be uploaded and read to the student. Each student utilizes the Google Suite to organize coursework through the Google Drive or work on aspects of time management through their Google Calendar. All students use smart technology in the form of a smartphone and some use smart watches. Smart technology has helped students with campus navigation and time management.

Like Project FOCUS, each P2I student has their own Cognitopia account. Once each week, the students build their MyLife ePortfolio during regularly scheduled classroom time.  The students started the year by focusing on strengths, preferences and interests to start with and will be adding information about goals they identified either last spring (for returning students) or earlier this fall (for new students). This more person-centered approach allows each student to track their own goals and related information for now.

 3. What was your role in the 2019 SOTA Conference? Who should consider attending in the future and what can they expect?

Each year we attend SOTA as a program. We use this opportunity to present aspects of our program and the research we are completing but also to see what other programs are doing. We are looking for best practices that are used in the field for continued development and improvement of our program. This year we have presentations about developing a program with limited funding, the use of peer mentors, and preparing for college from a parent’s perspective. As SOTA introduced the student leadership conference, we have taken students each year. This started with only a couple of students and this year we will be taking eight. The student leadership conference is valuable for students as they have opportunities for continued growth in advocacy, self-determination, and independence.

The University of Nevada Reno and P2I are pleased to host the 2019 SOTA conference. Since 2010, the annual State of the Art conference has brought together students, representatives from inclusive community college, college and university postsecondary programs, families, researchers and others from around the world. Plenary and breakout sessions highlight the current state of research, policy and effective practices in inclusive postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities. For the third year, a Student Leadership Conference will run concurrently and provide an opportunity for high school and college students to connect with peers, learn useful tools and develop student leadership skills.

A new component of the SOTA conference will be the College Fair, which is free for people interested in learning more about inclusive college education for students with intellectual disabilities around the country. Representatives from these colleges and universities will be on hand to tell you about their programs, including P2I and Project FOCUS. The College Fair will be held November 12 from 5-7 p.m. at the Joe Crowley Student Union. Refreshments will be served. Please RSVP to: SOTA College Fair 2019

4. How do your transition programs fit into the Think College model?

Think College is an incredible resource to postsecondary education programs, and we are constantly turning to many resources they provide. While Project FOCUS is not a Transition Program for Students with Intellectual Disability (TPSID), meaning we have not received federal funding, we have planned and developed our program after similar direction and metrics of TPSID programs. Both P2I and FOCUS would be considered a hybrid or mixed model. The majority of classes students take while in either program are completely inclusive and are not separate from the general population, but there are a few specific classes for students only in the programs. The courses specific to both programs revolve around daily living, independence, and career development.

Both programs (P2I and Project FOCUS) are Comprehensive Transition Programs (CTP), and both programs used resources provided by Think College to complete and reach that designation. This designation allows students in the programs the opportunity to qualify for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA), including Pell Grants and Work Study programs. Additionally, P2I used Think College resources to help guide the establishment of Dual Enrollment with local school districts. Dual Enrollments provide additional access to college for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

5. Do your respective universities support careers in STEM/STEAM?

The University of Nevada Las Vegas does support careers in STEM/STEAM. The university created a center that partnered colleges across campus called the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Education (CMSEE). Through collaboration the center develops funding opportunities for faculty. External funding can provide additional opportunities for students in research and other preparation for working in the STEM fields. The university has also a project with NFS to provide scholarships in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Many of our students are taking STEM related classes specific to their course of study and career goals. To earn the Occupational, Career, Life Studies Certificate upon completion of Project FOCUS, students have general requirements where they must take science, mathematics, and technology courses.

Although there are STEM/STEAM based programs at UNR, P2I students are enrolled as non-degree seeking students and do not have identified majors.

Questions or comments? Join the conversation! And thanks again to Cognitopia, Project FOCUS, and P21 for taking the time to share their resources and knowledge.

Tom Keating, Ph.D. is founder of Cognitopia, home of the Cognitopia Platform for Self-Determination, emphasizing IEP Self-Direction, goal management, and task analysis. Keating has been focused for the past 20 years on research and development of self-management and community living applications for individuals with cognitive disabilities and has been principal investigator on over 20 federally-funded technology development projects. Keating is also an Adjunct Research Faculty member in the Computer and Information Sciences Department of the University of Oregon. Keating’s perspective in all of his work has been strongly influenced by his experience of 31 years as a caregiver for a brother who experienced autism.

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  1. I have a question about campus navigation and smart watches or phones. Can you recommend software or apps that are user friendly for people who need a lot of assistance reading maps? I am a graduate student but even after six years at my current university I get lost on campus if going to buildings I don’t travel to frequently and in some cases has meant being lost in the dark or -20 weather. I am not the best at spatial things and reading maps is dubious despite my high level of speech and writing ability. If am wondering if any of this software might give me more peace of mind travelling on campus or to functions. Is it available to people outside of this program?

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