Missouri State University-West Plains’ (MSU-WP) ASCEND Program received a significant boost from the state Thursday when Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed legislation earmarking $7.5 million in capital funding for a facility to house the program, which supports students with autism.
“We are thrilled to receive this funding for our new ASCEND Program, and we sincerely thank Gov. Mike Parson for providing the funding for this project,” MSU-WP Chancellor Dennis Lancaster said. “So many students – those diagnosed with autism and those who wish to work with individuals on the autism spectrum – will benefit from this appropriation.”
“Our kids with autism are going to one day be adults with autism, and our community should be ready to help them succeed,” said 33rd District State Sen. Karla Eslinger (R-Wasola). Eslinger, a long-time educator and former superintendent at West Plains R-7 Schools, introduced the legislation that earmarked funding for the facility.
“The ASCEND Program will provide training and support for all individuals working with autistic students,” she added. “Most importantly, ASCEND will empower young adults with autism and learning differences to succeed in college, employment and independent living.”
“This is a fantastic program for the students, their families and our local campus,” said 154th District State Rep. David Evans (R-West Plains), who shepherded the legislation through the Missouri House of Representatives. “I congratulate Chancellor Lancaster for his hard work in turning the dream into a reality. It was my honor to work with him, Sen. Eslinger and other state officials in securing necessary state funding.”
Thankful for legislators’ support
Although university officials had discussed plans for a facility to house the program, Lancaster said they had not sought the funding from legislators.
“It is difficult to express how much we owe to Sen. Eslinger and Rep. Evans for their support in getting this funding,” Lancaster said. “Ideally, public servants strive toward advancing the public good and, if possible, support the needs of individuals in their districts. But in all reality that’s not always possible.
“With this project, both Karla and David have done both of those things, and I personally thank them on behalf of Missouri State-West Plains, the Missouri State University System, and in anticipation of all those autistic students and their families who will be served by the ASCEND Program in the future. The support shown by Karla, David and Gov. Parson for this project is a testament to their foresight and recognition of the need for such a program,” Lancaster added.
What is ASCEND?
The ASCEND (Autism Support Can Empower New Directions) Program is designed to help students with autism transition into college and toward a life of personal success and independence. The program, which is the first of its kind in this region, will offer specialized support services for those who wish to embark on a traditional college degree path to reach personally-chosen goals.
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.
The new facility will house office space for ASCEND personnel, sensory space to assist students during those moments when they may become overwhelmed, and gathering space for ASCEND group and one-on-one meetings, university officials said.
“The autism prevalence rate as reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates one in 44 children are identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Many throughout our community are impacted by ASD. Having a program with a facility designed to focus on the specific concerns the students encounter will enable us to be the support system the students and families need to achieve their educational goals,” added Dr. Angela Totty, dean of student services.
New degree programs planned
The facility also will provide space for potential new degree programs that help students develop the skills required to address the particular needs of individuals with autism, university officials said. Those degrees are currently in the planning stages.
“Missouri State-West Plains will develop two new academic programs that will train students to work with individuals on the autism spectrum. One will prepare graduates interested in working in school settings, while the other program will prepare graduates to work in professional settings,” said Dr. Michael Orf, dean of academic affairs.
“Classes for both programs will be taught in the new facility and potentially give students the opportunity to work one-on-one with students on the spectrum,” he added. “We believe this will be a huge benefit not only to the region but potentially to the entire state.”
ASCEND Program Director Mikala King is “ecstatic” about the funding for a new facility for the program. “This will help provide a place for the program to grow and reach even more students quicker than we anticipated. This speaks to the value of the program, the need for programs like this, the expectation for what the program will do, and to value what those with autism are capable of. I look forward to seeing how this building, program and its students change our community,” she said.
A location for the new facility has yet to be determined, Totty said. “There is quite a bit of work yet to be done before a final determination can be made. We know we want the students who participate in ASCEND to be part of the campus and we want the program to be visible because we anticipate it to be a premier program for the campus,” she explained.
“Utilizing the expertise of the university’s project and design professionals at the Springfield campus and fully reviewing the needs for the facility – parking, access, etc. – we look forward to finding the best place on campus for the facility,” she added.