Mercyhurst Magazine Fall 2014

‘Hurst aims high for students on the spectrum

By Susan Corbran

Transitions can be hard for students on the autism spectrum. Two unique components of the Autism/Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (known as AIM) have been developed to ease such transitions. For students trying to decide whether they’re ready to attend college, AIM of ers a three-week residential program called Foundations each summer. And now, thanks to a generous gift from the family of an AIM student, a Career Path Program will help ensure that AIM students can succeed in the work world following graduation.

When Mark Stookey and Lisa Chismire started researching college options for their son, they had some special concerns. Diagnosed as a child with Asperger’s syndrome, Andrew Stookey was at the top of his high school honors classes academically, but had a harder time in areas like social interaction and executive functioning. As he got closer to graduation, his parents discovered public schools in their hometown near Philadelphia had little to of er to students like Andrew. They pushed the school district, even threatening legal action, until it developed a program to help Andrew and others on the spectrum prepare for college. Determined advocates for their son, they researched options all over the East Coast before eventually settling on Mercyhurst and its AIM program. “Mercyhurst was by far the best program I saw,” Mark Stookey said. “Lots of the others had one or two of the pieces that Mercyhurst of ers, but Mercyhurst was the most complete package.” AIM of ers: • a supported living environment. Students can choose to live in a special AIM residence hall run by a trained hall director. • individualized social skills training. AIM staf ha ve identifed mor e than 100 social skills that students may need to practice and created training modules to address them. Students are assigned to complete the modules that address their specifc needs . • peer mentoring. AIM students spend several hours each month with their peer mentors, other students from the Mercyhurst community. • social activities, including optional meal gatherings and events on and of campus .

• academic support, including priority scheduling, testing accommodations, mediation with teachers, and more.

The one thing the Mercyhurst program needed to add, Mark Stookey believed, was a mechanism to help AIM students move forward into the work world after graduation. AIM Director Brad McGarry agrees, noting that unemployment rates among adults on the autism spectrum hover around 85 percent. “It’s not enough to prepare these students academically for the world of work. We have to make sure they’re employable after graduation,” he said. He and his staf w ere already working on a new vocational track for AIM students when Stookey and Chismire approached them with a proposal to help fund it. They have agreed to donate $250,000 – $50,000 to kick-start the new Career Path Program as it rolls out over the next three years, and $200,000 as seed money for an endowment to fund the program into the future. “Where else could we put our money where it would have a bigger impact for Andrew and other students like him?” Mark Stookey asks. He says the lifetime earnings of just one successful AIM student will more than cover the family’s investment. He adds that the stars aligned for this project because Mercyhurst already had a plan in place and was ready to launch it as soon as the funding became available. He’s convinced that Mercyhurst can be a model for the rest of the educational establishment. “We’re going to help the world understand just how much people on the spectrum have to of er.”


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