A new program at Missouri State University-West Plains (MSU-WP) will help area students with autism transition into college and toward a life of personal success and independence.
The ASCEND (Autism Support Can Empower New Directions) Program is the first of its kind in southern Missouri. It will offer specialized support services for students with autism who wish to embark on a traditional college degree path to reach personally-chosen goals, university officials said.
“Students with autism face a unique set of challenges that can make it difficult for them to reach their full potential, academically and in life. Through ASCEND, we hope to help these students develop the skills they need to achieve their goals in both areas,” MSU-WP Chancellor Dennis Lancaster said.
“We hope to encourage and foster self-confidence, self-advocacy and growing independence in our students with autism through ASCEND,” said Dr. Angela Totty, dean of student services. “By understanding their strengths and weaknesses, we can help them learn and apply skills and strategies to successfully navigate the demands of college life.”
A core team of highly trained individuals whose work will focus solely on the ASCEND Program will offer students structured support, scheduled guidance, individualized coaching, and peer and graduate mentoring that will help the students develop independence and accountability.
Program director named
Leading that team will be ASCEND Program Director Mikala King, currently a special education instructor with West Plains R-7 School District.
For the past four-and-a-half years, King has worked with students who have mild to severe disability due to an autism diagnosis. Many of them also have other disabilities, she said, pointing out these students function best in a small group, highly structured setting.
“I feel like my experience at West Plains R-7 has provided a wide range of scenarios that required flexibility in how we accommodate our students and given me a great basis to accommodate and adjust the program to help them better succeed,” she explained.
“The program itself will provide the support these students need in the classroom and socially on an independent level as they enter this new season of life,” she added.
The number of students diagnosed with autism disorders in recent years has increased, King said, and the ASCEND Program is a great opportunity for these students to further their education.
“I want students and parents to know that I am here to make their college experience the best it possibly can be and to help them succeed. My goal is for them to achieve their goals and keep moving forward. I want students to know that I want to assist and challenge them during their college years,” King said.
Local partner joins program
To help get the program off the ground, MSU-WP found a willing partner in local resident Tracey Renfrow, who, along with her children, provided a generous gift to help support the program’s first few years. Renfrow is owner of TJ Swift House, Inc., in West Plains, an agency contracted with the Missouri Department of Mental Health to provide supported living services.
“People with autism have gifts and abilities that can contribute to our community on a professional level, and they should not be overlooked,” Renfrow said. “With the support of the ASCEND Program, people with autism can achieve their goals in higher education and open the door of opportunity to an exciting career and a future of independence.”
For more information about the ASCEND Program, contact King at MikalaKing@MissouriState.edu.