How Can RAs Support Students with Autism on Campus?

Marist Senior Tara D’Andrea Devises a Training Program

Tara D’Andrea, Marist senior and Psychology - Special Education major, has spent the last two years of her college career researching how Resident Assistants can support students with autism on campus, and making proposals about how to improve college living conditions for these special needs students across the country.

Senior Tara D'Andrea presented her research at New York State's Fall conference of the Council for Exceptional Children held in Buffalo in early November.“It started as an independent study at the recommendation of one of my professors, and the hardest part was picking a topic to study,” said D’Andrea. “I ended up choosing and combining two things that are really important to me.”

These two things were being a Resident Assistant (RA) on the Marist campus and her passion for raising awareness about autism.
D’Andrea says the inspiration for her research came from her experience as a summer camp counselor in her school district’s extended classrooms working with special needs children, as well as her experience growing up with members of her family affected by autism.

“Autism is a big part of my life. I have two family members with autism and I work with students with severe disabilities as an aide in the summer. Just as an example, this past summer I was an aide to a student who was completely nonverbal in second grade.”
Her research involved a formal and informal literature review of existing procedures and protocols for supporting special needs college students at higher education institutions across the country. She then developed a set of models to describe and categorize the different types of programs implemented at all of the schools she researched.

“It was really hard to categorize everything, but I figured it would be really helpful. So that was where I started, but then I wanted to bring it home and see what RA’s at Marist knowledge base is like and how they can best support residents on campus with autism and respond to different situations.”

To do this, D’Andrea created a survey based on existing measures for high school and middle school special needs students that are already in place and validated by research. The survey quizzed RA’s on how they would respond to certain circumstances when dealing with autistic residents, and Tara used this information as a base for the third part of her research, which was developing a free public training module for RA’s.

Tara's research became a training website for RAs.

“I found that there is an incredibly mixed range of knowledge with RA’s on campus on how to respond to situations, which is good because that means some of them really know what’s going on, but it is somewhat concerning where there are those gaps in knowledge.”

In order to address this lack of training, she developed her own website complete with a training module for RA’s and general referencing information about students on the autism spectrum and how to deal with their special needs in a variety of situations. She took into account best practices for supporting students with autism, what those students’ needs are and what schools are already providing, and most common situations in these types of settings. These included fire drills, conduct violations for simple social miscommunication, roommate issues, and more.

“That was the big product and that’s what really matters. It’s so cool to take a research topic and turn it into something that can actually help people. That was the best part, for me,” D’Andrea said.

Marist offers a variety of support systems for students on the autism spectrum through the Office of Special Services. Students are usually assisted on an individual basis after applying for support in terms of special arrangements for classes, testing, etc. An adviser will act as a mentor and liaison between the student and professors if necessary, and make sure that the student’s needs are being met. In terms of housing accommodations, medical requests can be submitted as well.

D’Andrea contends that there are many more special needs students on campus than most people ever realize. “There are students who go to Marist who you might meet and never know they were autistic.”

One of the most important considerations to remember about autism is that it is a spectrum, which means no two people affected by it are the same. “It’s called autism spectrum disorder, but a lot of people forget the spectrum part. One of the most famous quotes about autism is, ‘once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,’ so I think that’s where a lot of the problems come in. It’s just a misunderstanding,” D’Andrea said.

She is extremely thankful that her experiences as an RA at Marist and her interest in special education psychology put her on this path toward helping others. “I’m so lucky to have had this research opportunity, and it was all because of this School of Social and Behavioral Sciences.”

Her website is called “residentswithautism” and can be reached here:

Written by Shannon Donohue '17

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