College Connections

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New Group Builds Social and Communication Skills for Terps With Autism
by Chris Carroll | photo by John T. Consoli '86 | illustration by Margaret Hall

Overwhelmed by the demands of college life, David Rolf ’17 repeatedly froze in his tracks while walking to class, as other students quizzically diverted around him.

Another Maryland student who tried to hand in a required form to a professor became so flummoxed when told to give it to a teaching assistant that he stuffed it in his bag and forgot about it. A third, unable to cope with schedule variations, repeated the times and days of upcoming tests from morning to night so he wouldn’t forget.

Welcome to the daily struggles of Terps on the autism spectrum.

As intelligent as any other UMD students, they live with a neurological condition that creates varying degrees of difficulty in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction and sensory processing.

Now, a new campus organization—the Social Interaction Group Network for Students with Autism (SIGNA)—is helping them develop the skills to successfully negotiate higher education.

SIGNA started the fall semester with just four participants out of 19 self-identified students with autism on campus—and likely a much larger number of students on the spectrum who haven’t come forward.

Kathy Dow-Burger, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (HESP) developed the SIGNA program and oversees the group.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about people with autism, but they want the same things everyone else does,” says Dow-Burger, associate director of the University of Maryland Autism Research Consortium (UMARC). “These guys want friends, they want girlfriends, they want to do well in school and get jobs.”

But autism spectrum disorder often makes it tough to maintain normal connections to both peers and instructors, while planning and organization are far bigger hurdles than for typical students.

For Rolf, a computer science major with a serious yet friendly demeanor, the stress of mounting academic requirements caused reactions he couldn’t control.

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“I’d begun having trouble talking to people and interacting,” he says. “I actually started getting a little paranoid.”

His father, Jon Rolf M.S. ’91, MBA ’95, remembers trying to talk his son through the problems that threatened his ability to remain in school.

“It was scary,” he says. “He was freaked out. He was basically shutting down.”

David’s counselor, Jo Ann Hutchinson, director of UMD’s Accessibility and Disability Service, told the elder Rolf about an autism group she’d been planning with Dow-Burger and Nan Ratner, professor in HESP and director of UMARC.

Ratner, an expert in pediatric language disorders, has long worried about a so-called “service cliff” for autistic students leaving high school, where comprehensive educational supports are mandated by law. Community college transfer students like Rolf, who’d lived at home until moving into Montgomery Hall in January 2015, face similar challenges.

“We tend as a society to be very interested in trying to deal with communication problems in children to set them on a better path, but many times, resources dwindle when these children become young adults,” she says.

Enter SIGNA, which features weekly group sessions where participants work through social communication issues and learn self-advocacy skills.

Members also attend weekly individual therapy sessions with HESP graduate students, and practice successful social interactions in regular outings with typical peers.

And starting in October, SIGNA members were each teamed up with an undergraduate hearing and speech student for daily “check-ins” to discuss planning and interactions with peers and professors and to provide a respite from the isolation some students with autism face.

SGNA, along with the campus Lutheran student group he attends, helped David Rolf regain his bearings, Jon Rolf says.

“It wasn’t the only thing that did it, but the group was there when he needed support and people to see and to talk to,” he says.

With news of the group starting to spread, some administrators have worried SIGNA might get overwhelmed with students seeking support.

“That’s a problem we’ll welcome if it happens,” Ratner says. “We want to get overwhelmed.”

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