WSU should support students on autism spectrum

ROAR program helps students, but not for those seeking degree



Xingyao Chen runs program for those with intellectual disabilities Jan. 17 in Cleveland Hall.

SARINA SHARPE, reporter and columnist

In every college student’s time at university, there comes a moment when they need extra support to get through an assignment, life event or difficult day — but is support available to students on the autism spectrum?

One program on campus, ROAR (Responsibility, Opportunities, Advocacy and Respect), works for students with mental disabilities to receive a customized education. These students earn a certificate rather than a degree. But there is no program specifically for degree-seeking, high-functioning students on the spectrum.

While the psychological services on campus are open to everyone, Xingyao Chen, an assisted living advisor for ROAR, had a hard time thinking of any support groups on campus for students on the autism spectrum.

“Is there any specific service for students with [neurological] disabilities?” Chen said. “To be honest, I don’t know.”

Brenda Barrio, co-founder of ROAR and assistant professor of special education, said the program is not for high-functioning or typical four-year students.

“[It’s for people] who wouldn’t be able to meet the requirements to get into the university,” Barrio said.

Barrio and co-founder Don McMahon, an assistant professor of special education, started ROAR last year.

Chen said ROAR is a two-year program that offers student-specific curriculum and gives people with mental disabilities the opportunity to get a feel for college life.

The main goal of the program is to help neurodivergent students — people who function differently on a neruological basis — gain independence to achieve their goals through activities and advising, he said.

A common struggle Chen sees in students in ROAR is the difficulty to adapt to a new lifestyle; a new environment with new people can induce anxiety.

Students are welcome to come to Chen and his colleagues for any assistance. The staff of ROAR, in turn, can offer workshops, social events and internship opportunities, among other things.

However, the ROAR program requires an application process and is mainly meant for students that are coming to college as freshmen.

But for students with high-functioning autism, there are not even support groups available to them on days when they are struggling.

Barrio said that, for any students who feel they may need extra help but don’t have time or the need for the intensity of the ROAR program, there may not be good options.

Searches on the campus website for clubs and organizations as well as the website for student organizations did not bring up anything about support groups for students on the spectrum. Meanwhile, there is plenty of support available for mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

“But,” Barrio said, “we’re getting better.”

Barrio said the University of Idaho has a “Ravens Scholars Program” that is specifically tailored to students on the autism spectrum. In the U of I program, students can participate in college life while receiving help with navigating the social demands of college culture, attending events, meeting with personal coaches, along with other helpful resources.

But the Ravens Scholars Program requires an application process, as well, in which the student seeking assistance would have to apply to both the university and the program itself.

The ROAR program is a shining example of support for some students.

However, WSU can continue “getting better,” as Barrio said, at exploring the unique needs of neurodivergent students. But until they do, high-functioning students on the spectrum are not receiving the support they need.