ASPIRE: A Game Changer for High School Graduates with Autism
The Kinney Center's ASPIRE program helps students with autism jump the hurdles that college life may present.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
by Kelly Welsh '05 (M.A.) and Patricia Allen '13 (M.A.)
At Saint Joseph’s University’s most recent commencement ceremonies, Bobby Strauss ’17 strode confidently across the stage to accept his diploma from University President Mark C. Reed, Ed.D. Like most college students, he had long dreamed of such a moment. But for Strauss, earning a bachelor’s degree was never a sure thing.
Diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, he applied for admission to Saint Joseph’s in 2013, hoping the University’s ASPIRE Program would bring his dream into focus.
Now ready to join the workforce, Strauss is an ASPIRE success story. This past summer, he entered the Autism at Work Initiative begun by global tech giant Computer Aid Inc. (CAI), a program that trains individuals with autism in technology skills that range from data entry to software development. Strauss began his first CAI assignment at JP Morgan Chase in Wilmington, Delaware, in September. The Kinney Center began the partnership with CAI over the past year.
Since 2011, Saint Joseph’s Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support has welcomed SJU students with autism, like Strauss, who were accepted to the University on their own academic merit, to participate in the ASPIRE program (Autism Support Promoting Inclusive and Responsive Education). Developed with a growing teenage autism population in mind, ASPIRE provides these young adults with a right-of-passage — a college education — from which they could be excluded because of the challenges social interaction and independent living can pose for them.
The end of high school for many on the autism spectrum is just that: an ending. Having aged out of the school system’s support for students with autism, these teens need programs that provide support for advanced education, social and life skills, and employment.
“At 20 percent, the national averages for success of matriculation in higher education and employment for individuals with autism are lower than any other disability,” says Kinney Center Executive Director Ryan Hammond ’13 (MBA), who cites a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics. “The ASPIRE program, with its 90 percent matriculation rate, is a game changer for students on the spectrum because it provides each person the tools they need to succeed on campus and in the workplace.”
ASPIRE helps students with autism jump the hurdles that college life may present. Through case management and peer mentoring, the program offers support in every aspect of campus life, from the classroom to the residence hall and beyond. What sets ASPIRE apart from other college support programs is its commitment to fully integrate participants in the college experience, and the Kinney Center itself, which is an invaluable on-campus resource for these students.
Kinney staff members help students take advantage of opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them. For instance, a recent ASPIRE student who came to Saint Joseph’s with perfect SAT scores was accepted to SJU’s competitive Summer Scholars program, which gives qualifying students a stipend and the opportunity to engage in independent research overseen by a faculty mentor.
Theresa Gill, associate director of community outreach at the Kinney Center, heads the ASPIRE program and presents widely on the topic of autism and transitions to adulthood.
“The Kinney Center is a frontrunner in college support for individuals with autism,” she says. “Our program is the most comprehensive I’ve encountered and its focus on blending individuals with autism into the general college population is very effective.”
One of the best parts of ASPIRE for Strauss was interacting with his peer mentor, Patrick Graham ’15.
“My greatest concern starting college on my own was making new friends and leaving the high school environment,” says Strauss, who participated in club sports and lived on campus. “Pat helped me open up a little bit and be less shy. This was essential to making friends with other students.”
From the start, Graham, who majored in special education and now teaches at the Y.A.L.E. School’s Philadelphia campus, was there to help Strauss navigate the social world of college. Strauss and Graham shared meals, played basketball and video games, and tackled Strauss’ homework and class projects together.
Graham is quick to point out that his relationship with Strauss was entirely mutual. ASPIRE brought them together, but the program didn’t define their friendship, he says.
“I learned a lot from Bobby,” says Graham. “I was inspired by his trusting nature, his flexibility and his authenticity. When my grandfather passed away, Bobby’s call was the first one I got.”
For his part, Strauss hopes to inspire students who face the same challenges he did.
"I'm most proud of proving to my family, friends, and even the skeptics, that I could transition into college without any issues,” Strauss says.
Focusing on his job at JP Morgan Chase, Strauss is thrilled to have found meaningful employment.
“ASPIRE helped me by providing safety nets to ensure my success at school and establishing connections that helped lead to the job that I have now,” he says. “I’m very happy with my place in the workforce.”
An earlier version of this article first appeared in SJU Magazine.