Online Education for Autistic Students Grows

Online colleges tailored for students with autism are proving to be a good relief for students who, in regular institutions, have suffered.

In January, 15 students with autism will be able to overcome some of the barriers of their condition by enrolling for college online, writes Allie Grasgreen at

In the past some students with autism found the idea of operating in the social environment of a college classroom so debilitating that it would derail their pursuit of higher education completely.

But Dana Reinecke, in the department of applied behavior analysis at the Sage Colleges in Albany, N.Y., said that through online study students with autism can overcome those barriers.

“It allows them to learn from their most comfortable environment, whether it’s home, a library, a friend’s house, a treatment center, their psychiatrist’s office,” she said. “It takes away that need to be in a room full of people that they might be uncomfortable with.”

They’ll begin courses for Sage’s new all-online bachelor’s degree program, the Achieve Degree, designed specifically for students with autism or learning disabilities.

Besides the online format, the other key component to the Sage program is individualization. Students won’t have to develop multiple ways of learning. They can opt for multiple-choice over essay exams, or choose their preferred form of content delivery – audio, video or text.

“There’s no reason that we can’t accommodate people with a range of differences or needs, or strengths or resources,” Reinecke said.

Colleges recently reported to the U.S. Department of Education that among their students with some form of disability, specific learning ones were by far the most common, affecting 31 percent of the population, writes Grasgreen.

“In the same report, half of colleges cited financial barriers to training faculty and staff to accommodate disabilities and buying “appropriate technology” for students with impairments.”

Sage is investing the necessary funding to provide that technology, individualization and mentoring, Reinecke said, but it does come at a price for the students. Tuition is $27,000 for the first year, followed by a “modest increase” the second year. The third year will cost $43,000 and be followed by another small increase.

“I hate the tuition issue, because I think it’s a big barrier,” Reinecke said. “But people with disabilities might also be able to access grants or other kinds of funding, so I’m hoping that it’s not something that’s insurmountable for too many people.”

There’s a growing demand for programs like those at Sage Colleges and Bellevue College, writes Kristina C at

While there are still advantages to a traditional classroom, courses that can be completed at home sound like good option. Kristina draws on the case study of Ruth Zanoni, who tried to home-schooling her 14-year-old daughter, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, with online education as a supplement; bullying in her daughter’s Maryland public school had become “too intense.”

The sensory overload from the physical environment of a typical public school can be overwhelming for students on the autism spectrum of any age.

There are some aspects about a “bricks and mortar” school that can be especially helpful for autistic students to learn to make their way in the world, writes Kristina.

“One can’t be — well, one shouldn’t be — online forever; what’s needed is for schools to help create environments in which students with sensory sensitivities, learning disabilities and more can feel safe and supported” writes Kristina.

“There’s a huge value to online education [for students with autism], but it depends on how it’s introduced and the nature of the person,” Ms. Zanoni said.

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August 31st, 2011

Staff Reporter

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