The Community College, OSS, and Me
Autistic Students Needs a College Village
A few weeks ago, Ian and I sat down at his computer to review the options for summer classes at the community college. I scrolled through the options in the Information Technology and Computer Science majors, each with their own seven digit number and a hyperlink to a course description. We sorted through the in-person, online synchronous, and online asynchronous options to find a class that might work out with his summer schedule. Ian has a better understanding of the lingo behind college — syllabus, credits, semesters, majors, requirements, course guide, register, add/drop — than he did when we started last September, but he still can’t independently sign up for classes.
After I “suggested” a class for him, we attempted to register for the class. I clicked the right button, but got an error message. So, I helped Ian write an email — correspondence with college personnel still requires some support from me — to the Office of Specialized Services to request help from an advisor. What is the Office of Specialized Services (OSS) and why did we turn to them to sort out this bureaucratic mess?
Every college, both 4-year and 2-year, has a department — sometimes called the Office of Disability Services or Office of Specialized Services (OSS) — that helps students with disabilities. That office is in charge of checking the paperwork of students with disabilities and then providing them a letter than they can use to get accommodations from their professors, like extra time on tests, note taking, special advisors, and free tutoring. They can also provide a buffer between a student with issues and faculty, who have absolutely no training in teaching students with special needs.
When I was a professor at a local college in New Jersey, I had a student with severe Tourette’s Syndrome. During my three-hour class on political theory, he would shout from the front row of the classroom “BITCH” every two minutes. It was a packed classroom with 30 students in a little room, and I had to give long lectures on Plato and Marx, while trying very hard to not take those insults personally.
I never complained, until he inserted a random paragraph of porn into a term paper on Rousseau, because random porn is not a typical symptom of Tourrette’s. I took this issue to the college’s OSS department, who convinced to the kid to go to therapy and increase his medication.
Okay, that was a random story… Back to the main point of this newsletter.
So, yes, there is an actual department at all colleges, whose entire purpose is to support students with disabilities. However, these departments cannot provide nearly enough support for most kids with disabilities, especially those with autism.
The OSS staff, like most college administrators, are tenured professors who don’t want to teach anymore and lack any specialized training on autism, dyslexia, and ADHD. They might know more about Jane Austen than autism. In addition, these departments don’t have nearly enough funding and personnel to handle the MASSIVE numbers of students, who had IEPs and 504s in high school. These programs were designed to help students with physical disabilities or minor learning problems, rather than the complex neurological issues, so students may not have access to accommodations that they received in high school.
My son currently has a 90 average in his IT class. His professor thinks that he could attend the local technical college after he completes his degree from the community college. Ian can handle the work, but he needs a ton of support with everything else, from signing up for colleges to learning that he shouldn’t correct his professor’s grammar. There’s a lot more to college than just getting an A on the midterm.
OSS departments do not offer sufficient support for many autistic students. Some colleges are now setting up specialized autism programs that can give that extra support. (And they charge extra money for that help.) Some high schools and private transition programs provide that help. We do not have access to that support at this time, so Ian relies on me.
Here are some hot tips for other parents, who are their student’s college support systems:
Sign up for services with the OSS department six months before the beginning of the school year. It can take a long time for them to process the paperwork.
Take every accommodation that the school offers your student — extra time on tests, free tutoring, special advisors. Even sign up for the free note takers. The note-taking accommodation is supposed to be for students, who have physical disabilities, but it can be handy for students who daydream.
The OSS department provides a letter for the student that official says the student is registered with the department and is entitled to X, Y, or Z accommodations. It’s up to the student to make sure that their professors get the letter and provide those accommodations. Even the note taking help must arranged with the professor with no support from OSS. So, you should help your student write an email that will be sent to all professors on the first day of the semester that explains all the issues, so your students gets all the needed help.
Make sure that you sign FERPA release form, so you can advocate for your student both with the OSS department and the college.
While in most cases, professors NEVER ever want to correspond with a parent, I’ve sent Ian’s professors little notes explaining that he has autism. His professors have always thanked me for that information, because the OSS department doesn’t disclose diagnoses, but that knowledges helps them interact with my son better. Both of his professors have been incredibly sweet and continued to send me notes on his progress.
This week, after a half dozen emails and one in-person meeting with his OSS advisor, we sorted out the registration problems. We learned that because Ian has not yet completed the English section of his community college entrance exam, he needs special permission to take a class this summer. (Who knew?) And then he had to fill out a special form. There is absolutely no way that Ian could have registered for this class without support from me and OSS. It was a team effort to help Ian sign up for one class this summer.
Here’s the latest from my other two newsletters:
And I’ve been posting lots of pictures this week on the blog of a short trip to North Carolina.
This is excellent advice from start to finish...but one thing that does not ring true to me is the nature of staffing in OSS (or Access Services). While the academic administrators are indeed former faculty, most of the staff on the student services side of the campuses I've worked on are people who have gone into student services; they're not coming from the faculty. They're likely completely overwhelmed by the numbers of students they have to serve, and there's likely very few opportunities for faculty to learn about the range of disabilities affecting students on campus. Access Services' job is to connect with students; it may be no body in particular's job to help faculty learn more about accessibility. There are huge systemic problems here, for sure, but I don't think that tenured faculty who don't want to teach are the issue.