University of Oklahoma Introduces New Support Program for Autistic Students

The new program supports autistic students' individual needs — but it might not be for everyone.
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Published on August 25, 2023
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  • The University of Oklahoma's new program, IMPACT360, supports degree-seeking autistic students.
  • The program aims to help students with time management, organization, and other skills.
  • IMPACT360 costs $1,750 per semester.
  • The program's requirements might be too demanding for some autistic students, according to an advocate.

Many students who go to college experience true independence for the first time, transitioning from living with and getting help from their parents or guardians to being completely on their own. This includes following important hygiene habits, eating, and creating a new network of friends and support.

These responsibilities can be even harder for autistic college students — and it may impact their performance. Only about 39% of autistic college students graduate, according to the College Autism Network (CAN).

In the fall 2023 semester, the University of Oklahoma (OU) is launching a program to help autistic students adjust to independent college living.

Called IMPACT360, the new program provides academic and social support for its participating students and helps with independent living and executive function skills, which help people plan and execute goals.

Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told BestColleges these skills are essential for life after college but the time and energy commitment that comes with the program might be too much for some students.

How Is IMPACT360 Different?

OU has had a program called Sooner Works since 2019. Sooner Works helps students with intellectual or developmental disabilities gain a college education. Kendra Williams-Diehm, director of the Zarrow Institute, which oversees both programs, told BestColleges that some families asked if they should transition their students from Sooner Works to IMPACT360.

Students and their parents or guardians should consider some important differences between the two.

IMPACT360 is designed specifically for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who are able to take on a full college course load. Sooner Works, however, was made for students with an intellectual or developmental disability who want a postsecondary education but are unable to complete a traditional degree program.

Sooner Works is a four-year certificate program, meaning students don't receive a college degree. IMPACT360 applicants must already be enrolled in a degree program at the university before enrolling in the program.

OU accommodates Sooner Works participants by slowing down or altering coursework, whereas IMPACT360 participants follow the same curriculum as non-participating students. IMPACT360 was designed with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students in mind, although it will help any eligible student, regardless of major.

What Will IMPACT360 Be Like?

While IMPACT360 students don't take on an alternative course load, they're still given resources to achieve their academic goals, break out of their comfort zone socially, and help develop the skills they need to live independently.

That's kind of where that 360 came from. We want to provide 360-degree, wraparound supports ... to make sure that all aspects that students need assistance with are getting addressed, Williams-Diehm said.

Without these supports, autistic students might have a harder time adjusting and graduating. But Williams-Diehm noted that this isn't always because of academic rigor. A major barrier comes from what IMPACT360 Director Angela Barbour calls the hidden curriculum.

There's just thousands of students on campus trying to make friends, and for students with autism, this can be a really difficult aspect, Barbour told BestColleges. They can struggle with those communication skills, and so they never leave that room, which impacts their mental health, which makes it harder to do their homework. They're responsible for being on their own, and then it spirals.

That's where IMPACT360 comes in.

Students in the IMPACT360 program will:

  • Attend weekly meetings with a designated coach for goal setting and attainment
  • Complete 3-4 hours of study hall sessions per week
  • Participate in at least one student organization
  • Participate in at least 80% of social events hosted by IMPACT360
  • Get assistance with resume-building and interview skills

As a counselor in the program, Barbour will check on students daily to ensure they're eating properly, maintaining their hygiene practices, and following through with other essential responsibilities.

While applications officially closed Aug. 4, the program is still accepting students this semester who meet the requirements.

IMPACT360 Program Costs

The IMPACT360 program has a $1,750 fee per semester on top of any other university costs. Barbour said they're keeping the price as low as possible, but most of their funding comes from the program fees, so they may have to raise the fee in the future.

The Sooner Works program has a $5,000 fee per semester. However, after including all other costs, an in-state resident in Sooner Works will pay approximately $27,600 — the same projected cost for in-state resident undergraduate degree-seeking students. So while the Sooner Works program fee may sound higher, enrollment in IMPACT360 could be more expensive.

Additional funding — either from the school, grants, or donations — could allow IMPACT360 to make staff more available and keep the program's fee from rising.

According to Williams-Diehm, more funding would also allow them to bring on psychotherapists specializing in ASD. Between 70% and 95% of children and adolescents with ASD have additional psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Another 24% have three of these disorders at once, according to a study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

OU does have a counseling center for students. A specialized therapist can be especially helpful though, since autism may affect how psychiatric disorders display themselves.

The Program's Not for All Autistic Students

IMPACT360 has many resources for students and plans to add more when possible. Gross noted, however, that some of the program's features may not make it ideal for every student.

Although it provides many supports that could be really useful, it could also add on a lot of time commitments, and kind of become one more thing that is overwhelming for students to have to balance on top of everything else in their life at college. So, I think there might be a trade-off there, Gross said.

IMPACT360 could be beneficial for autistic students looking for the push to go out of their comfort zone socially and someone to help hold them accountable for studying and other responsibilities. Program counselors are there to help students work through that process.

But if required study halls, social events, and student involvement sound too stressful, even with additional assistance, IMPACT360 may not be a good fit. Students who benefit from IMPACT360, however, can grow the necessary skills they need for an independent, post-graduation life.

Those self-advocacy skills and the independent living skills are just going to become more relevant in someone's life after college, Gross said. They will need their independent living skills wherever they're living, even if they have some support in their living situation if they require it, those skills are still going to be very useful.