Westminster faculty and staff members (above, from left to right) Tirza Kroeker, Director of Westminster’s College Transition Program; Keith Hardeman, Professor of Speech Communication; and Kelly Famuliner, Wellness Center counselor, received recognition earlier this month as a top-three panel at the Iowa Communication Association conference.
The trio traveled to Decorah, IA for the Sept. 16-17 conference and presented a panel entitled “Asperger’s Syndrome: It Worked for Einstein,” about their work with autistic students in the college classroom.
As a top-three panel, Kroeker, Hardeman, and Famuliner will present their panel at the Central States Communication Association conference this spring. Westminster is well-known for success with students on the autism spectrum.
“We have had 33 autistic students enrolled in Westminster’s College Transition Program since 2007 and have an 83% retention and graduation rate. This rate is 20% nationally,” says Kroeker. “Our success can be attributed to academic and counseling supports provided through the program and through the Wellness Center, as well as the encouragement and support offered by faculty and staff inside and outside of the classroom.”
In spring semester 2015, Kroeker sought to provide comprehensive programming that focused on developing social communication skills and physical fitness for students on the autism spectrum. The resulting Social Communication Class was a collaborative effort across academic departments. Students in the class were provided with the opportunity to acquire and practice interpersonal communication skills, as well as participate in activities designed to increase respectful, mutually benefiting discussion between students and their social systems (family, friends, professors, future employers, etc.)
In addition to Hardeman’s and Famuliner’s time spent working with Kroker to design, develop and implement the social communication skills workshop, the course led to support from (and collaboration with) the Psychology, Exercise Science, and Health & Wellness departments.
“Abby Coats (Assistant Professor of Psychology) worked with four psychology majors enrolled in her Developmental Psychology Lab to engage in one-on-one conversations focused on turn-taking with the students enrolled in our workshop. Their research led to presentations at a psychology conference,” says Kroeker. “Amanda Stevens (Assistant Professor of Exercise Science) and Therese Miller (Professor of Health and Exercise Science) also worked with a student intern to design, develop, and implement a physical fitness training class for the same students all year long last year and again this semester. The physical fitness training class is now offered by a new student intern and Andrew Greene, the assistant basketball coach.”
Hardeman says the issue of how to best support autistic students affects everyone in higher education.
“Our class was a very unique response to the increase of autistic students on college campuses,” says Hardeman. “Our team-taught Social Skills class isn’t necessarily THE answer, but it is AN answer. Other answers will likely follow as we learn more and more about the autistic spectrum.”
“Since most professors have no formal training in how classroom dynamics and management can be changed by this phenomenon, we thought, at the very least, that this panel could facilitate a more direct awareness,” he says. “Other colleges and universities might benefit from this model and continue efforts to enculturate these highly intelligent students into mainstream classrooms for more productive outcomes for everyone.”
“There appears to be an increasing amount of research on ASD but a lack of corresponding programming efforts,” Famuliner says about the importance of sharing their work at the conference. “Tirza has been working diligently with our students with ASD (through the College Transition Program), not only providing academic support services, but going beyond by attending to social and interpersonal communication competency development which Keith and myself are blessed to be a part of.”