Colorado State University Addressing Needs of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders from Kindergarten through College

Note to Reporters: Photos of students in the social skills program through the Department of Psychology are available with the news release at A student mentor and mentee from the OPS program also are available for interviews.

They’re into cartoon characters, video games and candy like any other teenagers and young adults, and when they’re together, their autism spectrum disorders are barely visible. But an outing to the local shopping mall or navigating a college campus can be traumatic for young people with these disorders – a problem that Colorado State University faculty and students have addressed through social skills groups for more than 25 years.

Colorado State faculty and students in two colleges – Natural Sciences and Applied Human Sciences – offer social skills group therapy for children and college students with these or other social disorders.

Led by Lee Rosen, the Counseling Psychology program in the College of Natural Sciences offers three social groups for elementary-aged children, adolescents and young adults, teaching them everything from basic human interaction to “politeness” skills. Rosen’s doctoral students are so good at helping these children navigate the outside world that they’re going to train others to do the same: This spring, they received a $25,000 grant from Autism Speaks to train health care workers in northern Colorado to create similar programs.

“We’re thrilled that this grant from Autism Speaks will really help us train the trainers and grow the number of young people across Colorado who can benefit,” Rosen said. “This will directly provide innovative services in communities to assist individuals with autism.”

The psychology center has helped more than 300 children and families over the years and completed more than 500 assessments for children with autism disorders in the last 16 years.

In CSU’s Department of Occupational Therapy in the College of Applied Human Sciences, the Center for Community Partnerships has served hundreds of community members and college students with disabilities since 1987. As part of that program, Opportunities for Postsecondary Success is helping dozens of CSU and Front Range Community College students learn to adjust to life on campus – and succeed. More than 100 Colorado State University students fall somewhere on the spectrum of autism and Asperger’s syndrome or have experienced traumatic brain injuries. The OPS program fully encompasses helping these students adjust to college life – living in residence halls, forming friendships, communicating with their professors, managing stress and anxiety, building time management and organizational skills, learning to advocate for themselves, and participating in classes and connecting to resources such as tutors.

The OPS program is unique in that it uses other CSU students – peers who are trained for the program – to accomplish all of these goals. Many student mentors are working toward degrees in fields such as occupational therapy, and the program also provides them with an opportunity to gain valuable experience while giving back to their university community. Under the leadership of an occupational therapy professional, these CSU students volunteer to be mentors and embed themselves with the mentees to fully address their needs. Many volunteers even go to classes with their mentees in the initial weeks of the program, as well as help them navigate getting to know their roommates and finding compromises that will help them successfully live with a new person.

With more than 42 students on the Autism Spectrum enrolled in the program, OPS helps them adjust for two to three semesters until they’ve gained the skills they need to be successful.

“Here at CSU and at colleges and universities across the nation, students on the autism spectrum are enrolling and pursuing their college educations,” said Cathy Schelly, an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy and director of the Center for Community Partnerships, which houses the OPS program. “But many are having difficulties. The Opportunities for Postsecondary Success program is one of only a handful of programs across the country that is uniquely addressing these difficulties.”

The OPS program is funded by a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It was implemented in the Spring 2011 semester.

“Between our two programs, Colorado State is uniquely positioned to help young people with autism spectrum disorders and other social skills needs,” Rosen said.

When initially started, students in the OPS program waited to work with students on the autism spectrum until they began classes. But due to its tremendous success, they’ve recently expanded the program to begin working with incoming CSU and FRCC students during the summer before classes start in the fall.

In the Department of Psychology, graduate students work with kids year-round. Some take the classes more than once.

On a recent trip to the Foothills Mall, psychology doctoral students Elizabeth Christensen, Lindsey Copeland and Julian Nolen and undergraduate Myndy Hiskett met with eight teens to talk about appropriate social behavior and the art of telling the “white lie.” The students had to buy each other small gifts at the mall and learn to gracefully accept them.

Gus Ozog, a student at Fort Collins High School who has Asperger’s syndrome, finds comfort in the CSU group – he’s signed up for the course three times. Otherwise, he seldom leaves the house.

“It’s fun, and I say in general it’s helped my social skills. She says so,” he said with a smile, pointing at his mother, Amy Ozog.

“Globally, he’s advanced a lot,” Amy Ozog said. “He feels more secure in the world.”

Rosen said children with Asperger’s and other autism-related disorders often stand out in typical social settings because of such self-stimulation motions such as rocking in chairs or touching their hands repeatedly.

The goal of the CSU social skills groups is to give the students skills in the world that will help them stand out a little less, which is why Rosen’s doctoral students are so excited about the Autism Speaks grant.

“I was immediately excited – it has the potential to reach so many kids that haven’t been served,” said Danielle Mohr, a doctoral student in psychology. “We’ve been starting the planning this semester. We’re hoping we can start the workshops in September or October.”

For more information about the Social Skills Groups in Counseling Psychology, contact the Psychological Services Center at (970) 491-5212. For more information about the Opportunities for Postsecondary Success program, contact the Center for Community Partnerships at (970) 491-5930.