PBSC professor and student team up to educate others about the post-secondary challenges of autistic students

Hersh Chaitin, Ph.D. (left) with Erin Slavin

Palm Beach State College professor Hersh Chaitin, Ph.D., and student Erin Slavin are spotlighting the significant barriers that students with autism spectrum disorder face in obtaining a post-secondary education.

Chaitin, along with Dr. Javad Hashemi, associate dean of research at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering and Dr. Jacquie Wood at FAU’s Center for Autism Related Disabilities, recently contributed to a research manuscript that was published in 2023 titled, “Extended Reality: An Evidence-Based Practice Support Tool for ASD Students Transitioning to Post-Secondary Engineering Education.”

The 8-page manuscript, which included 70 citations, was presented at the International Conference on Engineering, Science and Technology last year in Las Vegas.

“Erin was by far the best anatomy and physiology student I’ve ever had, so I offered her an opportunity to participate in scientific writing to support my research. She developed into an exceptional and prolific writer, it will serve her well in her career,” said Chaitin, who also invited her to be a Panther Academic Learning Support leader for his future courses.

Slavin, a tutor at the Boca Raton campus, accepted the invitation and the two began work on the yearlong project.

“This area of study drew my attention because I have always been interested in the success of underdogs,” said Slavin. “The further I dove into it though, I realized, they are not the underdogs, they just see the world a little differently.”

During the project, Slavin researched peer reviewed articles, finding different evidence-based practices previously used with success, and then wrote about the findings citing multiple relevant sources. Her work would serve as a key part of the background of the manuscript.

According to Chaitin and Slavin et. al., certain traits that students with ASD hold make them strong candidates for STEM careers, as they may have aptitudes that make for easier understanding of advanced concepts due to their immense concentration on a subject and tenacity to grasp a concept. Their research found 34.3% of young adults with ASD choose STEM majors versus 22.8% of neurotypical students.

Chaitin is currently working with Richard Hunter, interim director of PBSC’s Center for Student Accessibility, to learn how ASD students are performing and experiencing education at Palm Beach State.

However, many ASD students in college struggle to complete college or secure a job after graduation. Their challenges include learning methods and accommodations, sensory overstimulation, difficulties communicating and anxiety in social settings.

“This paper will hopefully shed more light on what autism looks like in college and allow us here at PBSC to explore ways we can better improve our skills and nonverbal communication to reach these students who have enormous potential to contribute greatly to society,” said Chaitin.

One of the overall research findings says that incorporating technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality in ASD student curriculum may be a novel tool in not only helping them transition into college life but assist them in developing social and communication skills while increasing their knowledge of these emerging technologies while they are there.

The research also suggests creating extended reality coding clubs and collaborations could serve as valuable opportunities for ASD students to practice social skills in the real world.

The manuscript is also part of PBSC’s application for a National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education grant.

In the application, PBSC’s Department of Science is proposing to create a program that supports the academic and social development of PBSC’s ASD students using these STEM-related augmented reality modules in partnership with FAU’s College of Engineering and ASD experts and clinicians.

PBSC’s partnership with local engineering industry firms will further support these ASD students who complete the proposed program and graduate from PBSC with their Associate in Science degree.

PBSC finds out if they were awarded the grant in October/November of this year.

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