GCU has variety of services for students with autism

Students identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), symbolized by puzzle pieces, can tap a variety of resources at GCU.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

A puzzle piece, the symbol for autism spectrum disorder, has special meaning at Grand Canyon University. Students on the spectrum can fit into the campus culture puzzle in just about any way they consider comfortable.

They can meet in small groups, even if it requires giving them a special place to view big events.

Beth Jamison, Director of Student Disability Services, is eager to help students on the autism spectrum feel comfortable at GCU.

They can ask to be accompanied by student workers if they want to attend those large gatherings.

They can take part in special off-campus outings with their peers and students not on the spectrum who would like to join them.

They can receive weekly check-in calls from Student Disability Services staff members.

And if none of those pieces fit, there also are surveys to gauge what they’d most like to do.

“We want everyone to enjoy GCU however they’re the most comfortable,” said Beth Jamison, Director of Student Disability Services. “That’s the whole goal. Don’t just sit in your dorm room and say, ‘I wish I was doing those things.’ Here’s your chance to come do them or try them out in a safe way that makes you comfortable.

“The whole point is their level of comfort with interacting with their peers, enjoying everything that GCU has to offer and taking it their own way.”

SDS, located in Papago Apartments (Building 47, on the east end of Lopes Way), can be contacted by calling 602-639-6342 and asking for administrator Ray Anderson or by emailing [email protected].

Ray Anderson, administrator for Student Disability Services, sets up board games for students.

While some in-person activities have had to be curtailed during the pandemic, the 38 students in the program this semester still have access to fun virtual activities. A recent remote gaming night, for example, lasted three to four hours as students couldn’t get enough of Jackbox on Nintendo Switch.

“It was really phenomenal,” Jamison said.

When COVID-19 forced the University to send students home early last March, it was more important than ever to provide academic support for students with autism.

Remote learning can be more challenging for them as they reorganize how they manage their time, and Jamison said SDS had to be mindful of several things:

“Were they in a good space to have support? Do they know how to access all the things that shifted during the pandemic – access to tutoring and their instructors? A lot of our students take advantage of that one on one with instructors to get additional questions asked, ask questions they were too overwhelmed to ask in class or just to ask for clarification. That was a big concern when we went remote.”

The surveys are important.

“We really want them to lead what our next events are going to be,” Jamison said. “We send out a lot of surveys because it’s not our program – it’s truly theirs.”

A key survey this semester is about what they want to do in the fall, when campus life is expected to be back to normal and activities should be abundant once again.

Movie on the Lawn is an example of a campus event that can be modified for students on the autism spectrum.

Two examples Jamison likes to use are Movie on the Lawn, a regular campus event in which a flick is shown on the video screen above the Quad, and off-campus outings.

Movie on the Lawn usually draws a couple hundred students, which can feel overwhelming to students with autism. They can ask to watch the movie in a venue with only a handful of people, either indoors or outdoors.

The off-campus outings evolved because many students on the spectrum often aren’t included when a group wants to get in a car and go somewhere. So SDS commissioned GCU vans to take them to nearby attractions, such as movie theatres and a miniature golf and gaming facility.

“This group, you can just use it as a van to get you somewhere if that’s what you want,” Anderson said. “If you want to go to a Suns game next year, let me know that and I can plan that. If you just want to go shopping, great – I can get a van and can drive you to the mall.”

Most of Anderson’s daily conversations with students are about academics, but he also can counsel them on how to join other popular GCU activities, such as clubs. His biggest academic concern this month is making sure ground students are properly prepared for the conversion back to online learning in April.

“A lot of what we do is put together planners, checklists and have a level of accountability of just, ‘I need to get this paper done and I’m going to have to talk to Ray on Monday, and if I don’t have this paper done I’m going to have to explain what I did all weekend,’” Anderson said.

The students who work for SDS also have an important role – they provide a critical peer connection to students on the spectrum. Jamison has found that even students not on the spectrum like to join the activities because they have friends or family members with autism – they’re comfortable with it because they’re familiar with it.

Jamison said the No. 1 program for students on the spectrum is digital design, so she recently hired a student worker who’s in that program, just to create that bond.

Like everyone at GCU, Jamison and her staff can’t wait for things to get back to normal. She suspects that students on the spectrum feel the same way.

“They’ve missed each other, which is really adorable,” she said. “We want to be able to get them back together for that connection and have some of those off-campus events again as long as everything’s open.

“I think those are the ones they miss the most because it gives them camaraderie with each other and the idea of, ‘Hey, I’m not alone and I’m not the only one experiencing GCU differently.’ They have their own community within that group.”

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].

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Related content:

GCU Today: One GCU student's journey with autism

GCU Today: Collaborating for students on autism spectrum

GCU Today: How campus culture embraces students with autism

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