Battling autism at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Battling autism at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

October 11th, 2012 by Rachel Bunn in Local Regional News

Rebecca Sadowitz reads a copy of The Echo, UTC's student newspaper, in Frist Hall on Thursday afternoon.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Cody Barnes leafs through a textbook as he looks for his next math problems Thursday afternoon. Barnes, a second-year civil engineering major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, worked on calculus homework in the lounge of the Frist Building on campus Thursday afternoon. Barnes is autistic.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Silent auction

* What: Silent auction to benefit MoSAIC, a college transition program designed for individuals on the autism spectrum

* When: Nov. 15, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

* Where: UC Gallery on the first floor of the University Center at UTC

Information: www.utc.edu/Administration/DisabilityResourceCenter

Rebecca Sadowitz needed extra time on tests.

The 20-year-old Sadowitz has a mild form of Asperger's syndrome, so mild that she had people tell her she outgrew her autism. But she didn't. On tests, she would get easily flustered. She had difficulty skipping hard questions or guessing.

"Just let me finish this one question before I move on," she would tell herself.

But in college, it became harder for her to formulate her thoughts. Last year, after "completely bombing" a test during her first semester at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she is a biology major, Sadowitz broke down.

"I need help. What can I do?" she told Michelle Rigler, director of the disability resource center at UTC.

Sadowitz had heard of a program at UTC that provided help and support for students with autism, the MoSAIC -- Mocs Students with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) Integrated Community. She went to the resource center, hoping someone at the program could help her.

"I don't know if Michelle will ever know how much she changed my life," Sadowitz said. "She said, 'We don't believe you grow out of autism or Asperger's.' It was like, 'Yes. Someone finally got it.'"

MoSAIC is in its fifth year at UTC, one of about 20 comprehensive support programs for autistic students in the United States, according to Rigler. It offers a four-year curriculum specific to the needs of students with autism students, peer mentoring, life coaches and general support from the disability resource staff.

For students with autistic spectrum disorders, being in college produces a new set of difficulties and challenges. Some students, though they did well in high school, find the social interactions of studying in a group setting or participating in class discussions prevent them from achieving, Rigler said.

"The idea was brought to us by the students," she said. "They were failing out of their classes, and they weren't sure why."

The program started out with four students, and that number has grown to almost 30. MoSAIC does not charge students a fee and often provides books and materials needed for MoSAIC classes. Rigler said that, without doing this, she believes many students in the program would not be there.

MoSAIC started as a program based solely in residence halls but wasn't addressing all student needs. The program was retooled the next year as a counseling-based program, but also failed to address many of the issues students had, Rigler said, and that's when the decision was made to make MoSAIC a comprehensive support program.

Part of what makes MoSAIC comprehensive is the way the staff interacts with students, Rigler said. The program was built entirely through collaboration between students and disability resources staff, and each year the curriculum is tweaked, based on roundtable discussions between the two groups to better address the needs of students.

"They don't see us as the sages, they see us as colleagues," Rigler said. "They challenge us and we challenge them in return. It's very much a partnership."

Cody Barnes, 19, said the support system MoSAIC provides is the program's biggest asset.

"I have a place where I can study and feel safe which, if you were autistic, you would know how important that is," said Barnes, a civil engineering major. "It's become a focal point of campus life."

Sadowitz's mother, Rachel Salomon-Sadowitz, said MoSAIC completely changed her daughter's life.

"She's really starting to embrace Asperger's," Salomon-Sadowitz said.

Salomon-Sadowitz has three children in the autism spectrum, including son Sam, 19, who is a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering at UTC and in the MoSAIC program as well.

Sam Sadowitz, a Bill Gates Millennium Scholar, had the option to go to any school of his choice -- but his mother said she only allowed him to apply to UTC.

"He is going to UTC because of MoSAIC," she said. "I was so impressed with the program. I believe my daughter is not only surviving, but she is thriving because of MoSAIC."

Her son, though he was hesitant at first, now says UTC and the MoSAIC program was the best place for him to be.

"It's helped me stay in [college]," he said. "Honestly, I would not have lasted two weeks without MoSAIC."

For his sister, after years of hiding her Asperger's, the biggest assistance MoSAIC provided was helping her discover that it is OK to be different.

"I've finally become confident in my skin," she said. "I was always comfortable, just doing what I wanted on my own. But I feel like I've finally accepted Asperger's and myself."