Ryan Moran said he got lucky in his first year at St. Joseph’s University. His roommate ended up becoming a best friend.
But for other students on the autism spectrum, a more supportive residential environment might be helpful, Moran, 21, said. He’s glad the Catholic university beginning next fall will offer one.
St. Joseph’s, home to the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support, plans to open its first residence hall specifically for students on the spectrum. With a capacity of up to 17 student residents and one student adviser, Saint Albert’s Hall off Lapsley Lane on the Lower Merion side of campus will undergo up to $250,000 in renovations this summer. A large three-story house, it used to be a women’s residence but most recently was used for COVID-19 housing.
“We came to the realization that the residence hall was a spot where a lot of our folks were struggling,” said Angus Murray, Kinney’s executive director. “Academically, they’re usually able to make the cut and succeed, but because of their social skills, they struggle in the residence halls. So we thought it might be helpful to have what we’re referring to as a longer runway as they transition from high school to college.”
St. Joseph’s will be among the first traditional college campuses in the country to offer such an option solely for its students. Landmark College in Vermont, for instance, is for students with learning disabilities and autism, and another group of residence halls in Vermont, Oregon, and Wisconsin, operated by Mansfield Hall, offer housing and services to students with autism from multiple college campuses.
Mercyhurst University in Erie offers apartment housing on campus with most of its students in the autism program living together there. Some colleges have specific floors with resident assistants trained in autism, said Jane Thierfeld-Brown, director of the College Autism Spectrum.
More than 70 colleges nationwide have autism programs, including Drexel, Eastern, Rutgers, West Chester, and several other Pennsylvania state universities in addition to St. Joe’s and Mercyhurst, according to the College Autism Spectrum.
“I talk regularly with other professionals at colleges with autism programs, and no one else had anything specifically like this, and a lot of people were interested in what we were doing,” said Alli Gatta, Kinney’s associate director of college support.
Gatta and Murray aren’t sure how many students at St. Joe’s are on the autism spectrum, a developmental disorder that can cause difficulty with social interaction, communication, and behavior, especially with peers. Students apply through the regular admission process and some don’t share their status, Gatta said. Forty-one students are enrolled in Kinney’s ASPIRE (Autism Support Promoting Inclusive and Responsive Education) program and get help through the center.
That number is growing and expected to reach 50 next year on the campus of nearly 6,800 undergraduate and graduate students. (Next year, enrollment will grow to more than 9,100 when St. Joe’s merges with the University of the Sciences.)
Nationally, the number of people diagnosed with autism also is rising. It was 1 in 88 children when Kinney started ASPIRE a decade ago. Now, it’s 1 in 44, an increase fueled by better diagnosis, more early intervention services in schools, and an increase in awareness.
A leader in autism support
St. Joe’s has been among the pioneers in autism support for college students and the first in the country to offer both a major and minor in autism studies. The Kinney Center got its start in 2009 when Paul Hondros, a 1970 St. Joe’s alumnus, became frustrated with the lack of services for his then-young son, Luke, and became lead donor.
Kinney employs 16 full-time staff, nine graduate assistants, and 125 part-time undergraduate students, and provides services to children and adults of all ages. ASPIRE, the program for St. Joe’s students, started in 2012, with just three enrolled.
Students in the program are paired with peer mentors for the first two years and then eventually encouraged to become a mentor. Staff help them improve social skills, organize and manage time, and prepare for careers. The center also hosts social events, such as trivia or pizza night.
ASPIRE students, who pay $8,000 for the services, take a full course load, participate in clubs, sports, and activities, and are in a variety of majors. They maintain an 84% six-year graduation rate, similar to St. Joe’s overall average, Gatta said.
Gatta said Kinney officials have heard from parents and students who wanted a residential option that was “autism friendly” and would allow them to build community without all the noise and “sensory overload” of a large dorm with hundreds of students and shared bathrooms.
A cross-college partnership
To design the new space, St. Joseph’s in an unusual cross-college partnership worked with interior-design students at Thomas Jefferson University. Eighteen students and two professors from Jefferson’s College of Architecture and the Built Environment went inside the hall at St. Joe’s, took pictures and measurements, and met with Kinney staff. Kinney also gave Jefferson students a training on autism.
And after students worked up initial designs, they met with students in ASPIRE for feedback on lighting, colors, furniture, and materials.
“We brought materials we were thinking about using so they could touch and feel those materials,” said Mallory Katen, a Jefferson senior from Limerick. “We found out what made them feel more comfortable and what gave them anxiety. That really helped shape the rest of our work moving forward.”
A memory foam caused some students to feel claustrophobic because of the way it hugged their body, she said. But students liked the openness of a “mesh” material, she said. Jefferson students also learned that many students respond better to cooler colors, like green, blue, and purple, she said.
St. Joe’s plans to incorporate some suggestions from Jefferson, including dimmer switches, a room with a Lego wall for students to decompress, and areas that foster social interaction but also include private study spots.
Other suggestions, such as folding desks in bedrooms to increase space, may be incorporated later as the budget allows, Murray said.
Gatta says the residence hall won’t be for all ASPIRE students. Some prefer traditional residential halls, and others live at home with family and commute, she said.
Murray said the new residence hall is meant to be for the first year or two, after which students will transition to other housing. The annual cost to live there is $12,000, but Murray said St. Joe’s is seeking scholarship funding.
Moran, a senior biology and music major from Limerick, will have graduated by the time the new residence opens. But he’s happy those who will come after him could benefit.
“It’s definitely cool for incoming freshmen or sophomores” to have that option, he said.