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Disability Action Center NW

A helping hand for college students with autism

UI’s Raven Scholars Project continues to be key resource during pandemic, migration to online learning.

Fluorescent lights and computers buzz like wasps. Every scratch of a pencil, every scrape of a chair against the floor, every click of a mouse, adds another level of distraction.

After a lifetime of this, students who experience sensory overload, a symptom of some developmental disabilities, can come to despise the classroom.

The University of Idaho’s Raven Scholars Project provides a different kind of environment for 30 students struggling with autism spectrum disorder. But the program is facing its own struggle this school year as it has moved to online classes.

Raven Scholars Project supports students as they transition from the distractions of typical high-school classrooms to learning in a more supportive setting.

“There is that place where I can go and everybody knows I’m on the autism spectrum,” Program Coordinator Leslie Gwartney said. “I don’t have to explain myself. I don’t have to worry about if I’m stimming (self-stimulation behavior) or if I’m having a bad day or if I want to talk about my special interest. People are going to understand.”

Developmental disabilities impair physical, learning, language or behavioral development. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ADHD, ASD, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities and childhood hearing loss or vision impairment fall within this category. Research has shown students with learning disabilities can be less likely to continue higher education than people with other kinds of disabilities or people without disabilities. That research also has shown students with disabilities were nearly three times more likely to stay in higher education if they felt like they belonged.

The UI Raven Scholars Program, one of several UI programs supporting these students, helps 30 students with ASD, diagnosed or undiagnosed, per semester, Gwartney said. Students regularly talk with her about their academic work, time management, self-care and social skills. These meetings are meant to become shorter and less frequent because Raven Scholars is a program helping high-school students transition into college life.

The change to online learning because of COVID-19 has challenged students with ASD. Some instructors have expected students to fill in gaps, but ambiguous assignments can be challenging for students with ASD, Gwartney said. Assignments that place equal weight on small portions of work instead of heavily weighting a final project can also be difficult. Students may feel like it’s busywork and avoid it.

Other students have struggled more with transitioning their social lives online. Normally, students have access to the Raven Room, a large, open space where students can work, eat, relax or chat with each other. Puzzles, board games and books are organized on shelves around the room while sensory tools and fidget toys lay on a counter near the common table. Two large windows oversee neighboring halls and their courtyards.

David Reetz, a sophomore biological engineering major and former Raven Scholar, is one of three peer mentors who volunteered this semester.

The program has used a Discord server to stay connected this semester because COVID-19 has made it less safe to meet in the Raven Room. The students talk about everything from video games to the weather and play games together, Reetz said.

Raven Scholars is not the only group providing support to students with disabilities. The UI Center for Disability Access and Resources provides personalized accommodations to students with documented disabilities. Outside UI, students can contact Disability Action Center Northwest, a group run by and for disabled people to teach self-advocacy and independent living skills.

The lights of the Raven Room may be off for now, but disabled students still have networks of people working to help them succeed. It’s a long way from the constant buzzes and clicks that distracted them in high-school classrooms.



Lex Van Horn is a junior majoring in Journalism at the University of Idaho. The Poulsbo, Wash., native has worked for UI’s Argonaut and Blot student publications as well as KUOI radio.