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November 29th, 2017

It is just another early evening rush at the Stag, Fairfield University's on-campus eatery, as students pile in to see what looks good.

"Just a snack," C.J. Enwright tells himself out loud, looking up at the menu.

Ana Hall goes for the sushi. For Caroline Maffei, it is chips and a soda.

Others line up at the register, wallets in hand, or scout out a booth.

For these dozen students on the autism spectrum, this is not a break from class, this is part of class.

"This is two-fold for us," Alyson Martin, an assistant professor and co-director of special education at Fairfield U. "It addresses issues of transition for students with autism, helping them prepare for post high school life, and brings autism awareness to campus."

The Transition Opportunities for Post-secondary Success course, or TOPS, is a collaboration between the university's Graduate School of Education and The Kennedy Center, a Trumbull-based provider of services for individuals with disabilities.

"Many students with autism spectrum disorder are highly capable of succeeding at a university academically, but often are challenged due to the lack of critical social and life skills," Kennedy Center President & CEO Martin Schwartz said.

For graduate students in Martin's Introduction to Autism class, it offers field experience as they act as assistants in the class.

"This is really my first time working with special education adults," said Peter Watson, a special education classroom aide in Darien. "It's really interesting to go to everyday activities with them." Watson is working toward a special education certificate.

Autism encompasses a variety of conditions that can include challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, and sometimes unique strengths. There are many types, including Asperger's Syndrome or high-functioning autism. More high-functioning young adults with autism are going to college. How many is uncertain.

"There are 60 colleges with specialized programs and the number of students with autism at all colleges is drastically increasing," said Jane Thierfeld Brown, a clinical professor at Yale and director of Yale's College Autism Spectrum program. "We do not have good numbers, as most college students do not identify to the school as having autism."

The Fairfield program is not for students attending the university, but rather participants ages 18-21 who found out about it through The Kennedy Center. Over the span of 10 weeks, the class will have visited the campus RecPlex, library, art gallery and book store to work on communication skills, problem-solving and practice spatial awareness.

"The transition to adulthood is difficult for all young people, particularly for those with autism," Wendy Bloch, an administrator of therapeutic services at The Kennedy Center, said. "Often, they fail not academically, but socially."

TOPS helps work on the soft skills. When it started this fall, officials hoped to attract six to eight students. A dozen signed up. For many, a good chunk of the $300 tuition fee is subsidized by grants. Participants come from Fairfield, Newtown, Ansonia, Shelton, Stratford and Bridgeport. Some are already taking post-high school courses. Hall, of Bridgeport, is taking a class at Gateway Community College in New Haven.

On Mondays, Isabel Shaw said she attends RISE (Reaching Independence through Supported Education), a collaboration between Sacred Heart University and Cooperative Education Services of Trumbull. That program also helps students develop vocational, social and personal management skills through a variety of university campus- and community-based activities.

On a recent night's TOPS class, students signed in and picked up small white boards to doodle on until everyone arrived. Before the visit to the snack bar, they prepared. Hands shot up when asked if they brought money. They were asked to think about what they might want to order.

"Do we leave our stuff here?" one student asked.

"All but your purse, jacket and phone." Jen Narcisco, a Kennedy Center art therapist who assists with the class, told them.

After the visit, the class returned to their third-floor classroom at Canisius Hall to talk about what they liked and something they learned.

Enright, from Stratford, said he liked hanging out with his friends and learned that a campus snack bar is pretty much like a diner.

Charlie Eagleson, of Newtown, said he learned the student center where the snack bar is located has a service elevator across from the bookstore that only employees can use.

After students left, Martin remained with members of her graduate-level Autism Spectrum Course. Jessica Grabowski, a Westport second-grade teacher working on a special education certification, called the experience amazing. "This is nothing you can get out of a textbook. It's hands on," she said.

The Fairfield U. program is still evolving but will continue into the spring and perhaps the summer.

"This program comes at a crucial time for college-ready students with ASD due to recent state budget cuts for such transitional services," Martin said. "It's much needed."