Tags Posts tagged with "autism"


Self-quarantining and social distancing measures this spring because of COVID-19 led to widespread disruptions in people’s schedules. Adjusting to those changes took a toll on everyone — young and old — and particularly children on the autism spectrum, who can experience enormous anxiety when deviating from routine. To help parents navigate the new terrain, Southern’s Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders created Friday Friendly Forums, a series of five conversations with center staff on a variety of autism spectrum disorder topics. The forums are free and can be viewed online at any time.

“The idea was to support caregivers,” said Kari Sassu, a research scientist with the center.

That support is critical: It can mean the difference between optimism and despair, and between healthy growth and discouraging setbacks. It has everything to do with how the center serves and supports the region, from top to bottom — so that thousands of children and young adults with autism in the state get the chance they deserve to live happy, productive lives. And during the pandemic, the center didn’t stop its outreach efforts.

“For people with autism, the loss of routine has affected them so much,” Sassu said. “That causes anxiety and behavioral changes. The center may be physically closed right now, but its support isn’t.”

The first Friendly Forum, “Structure and Flexibility,” provides support for families and caregivers of children with ASD as they navigate the homeschooling experience. It was born of Sassu’s own experience as a full-time working parent of children on the spectrum who recognized “the importance of structure and predictability.”

“There are competing demands,” Sassu said, “for parents who have work and there may be other children, too. A lot of our kids on the spectrum need a schedule and guidance to execute extra tasks. That can be daunting, to spin all of those plates simultaneously.”

The second, “Virtual PPT Meetings,” is led by Sassu and Kimberly Bean, another research scientist with the center. Much like it sounds, it discusses considerations for planning and placement teams (PPT) to meet virtually, which Sassu said can be overwhelming.

“We heard parents were really struggling with that,” Sassu said.

Forum three, “Transitioning to Homeschooling,” is a discussion of the ups and downs associated with transitioning to homeschooling. Four is “Supporting Communication,” guidance offered by Barbara Cook, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Disorders at Southern, and five is “Self-Care for the Caregiver,” led by Sassu, who talks about the concept of self-care and its importance, especially as it relates to those caring for children with special needs right now.

In addition to the forums, the center has organized a free virtual program, SCSU CCD PEERS, a young adult social skills program based on the UCLA PEERS program, which is an evidence-based, caregiver-assisted social skills intervention for youth 18 – 21 years old with ASD. The program covers conversational skills, dating skills, peer pressure, electronic communication, and more. Sessions are held via Zoom on Mondays, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. The final session is July 27.

The center also created a First Responders Autism Training program, an online course that began in January 2020 that’s especially relevant given the increased reliance on medical professionals during the pandemic.

“If an ENT shows up if someone is injured and there’s no training already, it’s important for them to have the background so they better know how to care for someone who is on the spectrum,” said Meaghan Reilly, a student worker at the center. The course includes a video presentation and a live discussion board via Zoom with one of the team members from the center.

Sassu said the center’s online offerings will continue to expand throughout the summer with webinars about Title IX and the International Disability Alliance, which improves awareness and rights for individuals with disabilities.

“We’re also in the process of putting together a series of talks for students with autism spectrum disorders on college campuses,” Sassu said. “There are some for students and some for faculty, and then some for peers. Also, a training series for school-based professionals. If students on the spectrum are going to transition back to school or continue online, they’re going to need help to address transitioning.”

Response to the online forums and offerings has been encouraging as the center continues its commitment to providing much-needed services.

“This is an unpredictable time,” Sassu said. “We all are going day-to-day, but for people with autism, it’s unsettling. The question is, how can we make it work so everyone — parents, teachers, providers, and students — are their best?”

younger students looking at laptop

The coronavirus pandemic has brought upheaval to students throughout America, leaving the education system to struggle with a temporary “new normal.” But for those individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, these changes are creating additional distinctive challenges.

Barbara Cook, associate professor of communication disorders who also collaborates with SCSU’s Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders, offers some suggestions to teachers and professors on how students with autism – particularly at the college level – can better deal with these challenging times.

Challenge: Navigating the social expectations with remote learning.

Cook said these can include addressing the following questions:

*How do students alert the teacher/professor when they have a question or comment?
*How do students step away from a live session (do they announce that they are leaving, or do they just walk away from the computer)?
*Where do students look or direct their gaze?
*How do students consider the background being displayed from their computer when showing video?
*Where do students sit during these online classes?

Suggestion: A course professor may need to reach out to individual students to clarify expectations and rules for engaging during synchronous learning. Examples would include how students should indicate they have a question or comment, and whether they are expected to keep their video on throughout a session, or if they can leave unannounced. Raising awareness of the subtleties during a private conversation will be greatly appreciated by the students.

Challenge: Navigating the social expectations for asynchronous learning. This might prove to be especially challenging given the heightened need to self-manage the review of materials and complete course readings and assignments.

Because of the sudden shift to an online platform, a professor may have created additional assignments that can monitor and assess the engagement of students for this type of learning. This might be perceived as “breaking the contract” of the original syllabus. The student may struggle to connect with the professor to gain clarification or request an accommodation to align with their learning needs.

Suggestion: Check in with each student to learn about their strategy for organizing and planning assignments. If you use BlackBoard, take advantage of its calendar function, which can show all students the due dates of assignments. And the announcement feature can provide the ability to link to specific assignments in the course to serve as weekly reminders. Course instructors are encouraged to connect with their school’s disability resources office to better understand the needed accommodations for online learning of their students.

Challenge: Navigating one’s home as a classroom or learning environment.

Learning in a physical classroom is conducive to engaging in one’s course work. But a home setting can create distractions for students, causing them to relax and focus on leisure activities, rather than course work. Organizing, planning, and time management for completing course work might be interrupted.

Suggestion: Share similar challenges experienced by many peers, and hold discussions or possibly check-ins to encourage continuation of learning. Offer suggestions for creating a daily routine that includes a set time and location for completing course work. This daily schedule also should include designated time for leisure activity.

Challenge: Navigating group projects. Students may inconsistently initiate or respond to email with other students during group projects.

Suggestion: Teachers and professors can arrange meetings with student groups to find out their approach to communicating, as well as the timeline they have outlined to complete the steps of the project(s). It would be important to arrange check-in meetings between the course instructor and the groups to keep momentum.


A Southern team is trying to improve the lives of African children who have an autism spectrum disorder.

Ruth Eren, endowed chair of special education and director of the Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders; Stephen Hegedus, dean of the School of Education; Doreen Tilt, coordinator of training for the Center; and Shaylah McQueen, a graduate student seeking a Master of Science degree in special education, recently spoke to a group of United Nations ambassadors and ministers from Africa.

The meeting was hosted by Necton Mhura, U.N. ambassador from the Republic of Malawi. It came about at the request of Ugoji Adanma Eze, an international human rights lawyer who is an advocate for women and children.

Eren said she was asked by Eze to speak at the U.N. to present educational interventions for children with autism. Eren then asked Fred Volkmar, professor of psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center and an expert on the medical side of autism, to join the SCSU contingent in their presentation at the U.N.

“There is still a stigma in Africa attached to having autism,” Eren said. “Many misconceptions exist. Ugoji is trying to break through and educate people about what the disorder is and what can be done to help people – especially kids – who have it.”

In fact, Eze has proposed writing a book on the subject to educate the African populace, and has asked Eren to author a chapter.

Hegedus served as the keynote speaker at the U.N. session, where he focused on the stigma. To emphasize the point that there is no need for those with the disorder to be stigmatized, he held up a photo of a nephew of his who has an autism spectrum disorder.

“That really made an impact on the 30 or so people in that room,” Eren said. “By acknowledging that someone in his family is on the spectrum, it serves as a powerful example that there is no need for a stigma to be attached to autism.”

Hegedus said the stigma problem is a socio-cultural issue that should be addressed not only though the schools and parents, but through the churches. “The churches play a significant role in education in Africa,” he said.

McQueen spoke about the genetic component of autism, which was greeted by the audience. “I was privileged to be able to speak at the U.N. about this issue and I was greeted very warmly. They know that students of today represent the future.”





Tyler Steskla

Sophomore Tyler Steskla of the Southern Connecticut State University men’s swimming and diving team is accustomed to dealing with adversity. At the same time, he is also well versed in the elements of perseverance and accomplishing goals.

He was all set to enter the pool and be a key contributor for the Owls’ in the pool last fall. Unfortunately, he was deemed ineligible by the NCAA to compete following a review of his high school coursework. Rather, he was able to practice with the team but could not compete in regular or post-season meets.

Part of the reason why he is able to shake off obstacles is the fact that he has overcome plenty of roadblocks since being diagnosed with autism at age 3. Tyler’s story was recently featured on NBC Connecticut and received national publicity as well across the NBC broadcasting platform.

“People that have this diagnosis know that it’s not easy for them, and they want to accomplish more than people think that they can,” Steskla said.

Accomplishing more has always been a part of Steskla’s nature. In the pool, he was an Age Group champion and Nationals qualifier as a part of the Cheshire Sea Dogs swim club. That prowess caught the eye of Owls’ coach Tim Quill. Steskla joined the program for the fall 2014 semester.

After receiving the unfortunate news from the NCAA, Steskla did what he always does – overcome the roadblock. He had a grade point average in excess of 3.0 in the spring of 2015.

“Personally, I was really worried about him because I know how passionate he was about it (swimming),” Quill said. “He was devastated, but instead what he did was embrace the situation, pull a 3.0 (grade point average) last semester.”

A Cheshire native, Steskla was one of the Owls’ stars of this year’s Northeast-10 Conference Championship, which took place in Worcester, Mass., in early February. He had three top-14 finishes, including a fourth place finish in the 1,650 yard freestyle – the equivalent of a mile swim. Southern Connecticut won its sixth straight NE-10 title and 14th in the last 15 years.

“He’s just a great example of that when you set your mind to something, anything’s possible,” Quill said. “People would look at Tyler in that he has a disability in some regards, but I look at it more as a strength.”

Watch the video about Steskla on NBC Connecticut