University of Maine Helps High School Students on the Autism Spectrum Transition to College
February 23, 2023

​For the past four summers, ACE member University of Maine has partnered with the Maine Department of Labor’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) to provide a five-week learning experience called Step Up, to help prepare high school students and recent graduates on the autism spectrum to successfully transition to college.

After two years of remote participation, the Step Up program safely returned to UMaine last summer to provide the on-campus living and learning environment of the successful 2019 pilot.

During week one, Step Up provided seminars to help the students become acquainted and to plan for their successful transition to postsecondary education. These seminars addressed topics such as obtaining and using accommodations, managing one’s health care, study skills, time management, and self-advocacy and self-determination.

“I think many people with disabilities are kept from exploring choices and decisions in an effort to protect them,” said Janet May, who has taught Step Up seminars on self-determination for the past four summers. “It’s better to have opportunities to practice making choices from early on in life; that’s how we learn and grow.”

According to a report from the National Center for Special Education Research, 44 percent of students on the autism spectrum enroll in a postsecondary institution, compared with 67 percent of the general population. Thirty-nine percent of students on the spectrum who enroll graduate, while the graduation rate for the general population is 52 percent.

Sarah Howorth, a UMaine assistant professor of special education, attributes some of this gap to institutions not meeting the needs of students with autism.

“There’s lots of room for improvement on college campuses. The typical accommodations that are offered, like note takers, closed captioning, or extended time on tests, are not necessarily what students with autism need,” Howorth told Higher Ed Dive. She added that campuses should provide more support to strengthen students’ interpersonal skills.

Certified PEERS® facilitators from DVR offered a full-day social skills bootcamp in which students were presented with targeted social skills through didactic instruction and role-play demonstrations.

Throughout the Step Up program, participants practiced these skills in a variety of settings, from a sit-down dinner at a restaurant to excursions to an indoor trampoline park, a laser tag center, the Bangor State Fair, and UMaine’s Hudson Museum.

Last summer’s program was designed for and sought participation from students who have an interest in STEM education and careers. Students enrolled in a first-year level, three-credit environmental science research course that included lectures and hands-on fieldwork activities and taught skills such as graphing, data analysis, and critical thinking. They also completed a project-based learning work experience and participated in events at UMaine’s astronomy center and planetarium, including viewing the early images transmitted from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

“Partnering with the University of Maine to deliver the Step Up program has offered real benefits for our clients,” said DVR Director Libby Stone-Sterling. “They get a real college experience and we see growth as they pursue their postsecondary goals.”

Howorth hopes other institutions take steps to ensure that they are accessible and that students with disabilities are aware of their resources.

“If we can’t make our colleges welcoming places for diverse people of all abilities and backgrounds,” she told Higher Ed Dive, “that upholds the idea that education is exclusive and not everybody gets to go to university.”

The 2022 Step Up Program was a collaborative project of the Maine Department of Labor Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, the University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies, the College of Education and Human Development, and the Early College Program. Student accommodations were provided by University of Maine Student Accessibility Services.

Photo courtesy of the University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies