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Prosper Academy

Authentic College Experience: Inclusive environment awaits young adults
with autism on MCC South Omaha Campus

Robert Woods can navigate a syllabus. Take, for instance, his literature class at Bellevue East High School. As soon as he learned which book his class would read during the new semester, he would consume every page of it before the second day of class. When it came time to discuss the content weeks later, Woods had reread the book several times. The depth of his understanding of the characters regularly led to lively classroom discussions with his teacher that would sometimes become the lesson for the rest of the class.

Like most students, Woods is stronger in some subjects than others, but no academic topic would be too daunting for the 21-year-old college student. But as a person on the autism spectrum, navigating the college experience is where Woods needs some extra support - registering for classes, scheduling a meeting with an advisor, buying the books and getting to campus on his own.

Autism is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges." Through the Omaha-based Autism Action Partnership's recently launched Prosper Academy, Woods and five other young adults with autism are spending the next two years developing independent living skills while living at the St. John Paul II Newman Center. After completing this program, participants should have a foundation of new skills to draw from in pursuit of their next life goal.

Through the partnership with AAP, a significant piece of the real-world lessons Woods will learn over the next two years will take place at Metropolitan Community College. Prosper Academy students are enrolled as noncredit students at MCC, where they will be gaining an authentic college experience at the South Omaha Campus. Prosper Academy can also be a bridge for students who choose to further their education at MCC after completing the academy.

Over the duration of the program, they will take 32 independent living courses, provided through the Learn4Independence™ curriculum, which is specifically developed for individuals with autism. Course content will be delivered through MCC systems and absorbed in a campus setting. All instruction is provided by AAP.

To replicate the college experience as closely as possible, students in the Prosper Academy share suite-style dormitories at the Newman Center, located on South 71st Street, bordering the UNO campus and Aksarben Village. Woods and his three roommates do typical things college students do, like playing video games together and making food runs to the grocery store up the street. But the norms that guide daily social interactions aren't as clear to a person with autism. For example, if a coworker having a bad day at work is asked, "How's your day going?" and responds sarcastically with, "I've never been better," a person with autism could take that answer literally.

Emily Sutton, AAP program director, joined the organization in December 2021 to help launch the Prosper Academy. She said the program is designed to address what one participant refers to as a postsecondary "cliff" awaiting young adults with autism after finishing high school. The participant said having the opportunity to be one of the first people in the Midwest in a program that addresses this gap in services made it worth pursuing - even if being in the first group creates some nervous energy within.

Bridging the postsecondary gap

There are two traditional areas of programming available for people with autism: programs for young kids or support for people who are more severely impacted. Sutton said Prosper Academy participants have a need for services that fall outside of these traditional programs.

"[Prosper Academy] folks are kind of in the middle. They have a real opportunity to live on their own but just need reinforcements, supports and a safe place to practice," Sutton said.

Sutton said neurotypical people learn independent living skills through lived experience - choosing the doctor they want to see or applying for or resigning from a job. For people with autism, the social cues that aid neurotypical people in gathering information aren't as apparent. Prosper Academy seeks to develop a working knowledge for navigating the social interactions everyday life requires through a more formalized program delivered in a supportive, inclusive environment.

"We're creating a space where as that individual needs it, they can tap into supports that we have readily available to them," Sutton said. "A space where they can explore all the potential they already have inside of themselves."

Kyran Connor, director of the MCC South Omaha Campus, said the College is proud to offer a setting in which some of these important learning experiences can be facilitated.

"We're offering [Prosper Academy] programming on campus which allows them an opportunity to experience college life," Connor said.

Prosper Academy students have been assimilated into the MCC system. Each student has an MCC student ID, their own email address, access to checking out books from the library and other student resources. The Learn4Independence™ curriculum has been imported into Canvas, the College's learning management system. An MCC navigator meets with academy students to discuss the nuances of the campus. An MCC disability support specialist is also available to assist with any needs that arise.

MCC is also providing assistance on the way to and from the South Omaha Campus. All Prosper Academy students have a Pass to Class bus pass that is available to all MCC students. Arranging their own transportation is a fundamental part of the independent living experience at the academy.

"For us, it's just about being a good partner, supporting students on the autism spectrum and making sure they are comfortable coming to MCC," Connor said.

Sutton said MCC leadership enthusiastically embraced the vision for Prosper Academy during the concept phase - long before students moved into the Newman Center in late August.

"We have been very fortunate since the beginning when we first approached MCC about the possibility of partnering and providing as much of an authentic college experience as possible for students in our academy," Sutton said. "There was no question whatsoever about this program being complementary to what MCC is all about."

After the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the timing for launching the program was more ideal, Connor said a series of tours and orientations with program participants is how the College sought to create a feeling of familiarity to help ground them.

New environments can be neurologically overwhelming and even painful for people with autism, whose brains are highly active processing the sensory information around them.

“What we’re doing is really carving out autism-specific support for students in a sensory-friendly setting so they can experience life on campus and in the dormitory,” Sutton said.

Taking course content into the classroom of life

Like MCC academic programs, Prosper Academy course content is brought to life by applying it outside of the classroom. Each individual lesson builds into a larger concept digested over time. For example, Prosper Academy students are learning to do their own grocery shopping. The classroom lesson shows students how to make a list and plan a budget for the items they need on a weekly basis. The food budget they are learning now will be a line item of the broader household budget they learn about in the future.

In September, Prosper Academy students began making their first trips to Aldi, a short walk north along the Keystone pedestrian trail from the Newman Center. While tracking down the items on their shopping lists, Alec Hurlocker, 25, came across a humidifier that wasn't initially part of his planned shopping. He was considering purchasing it for his bedroom. Lizzie Lanspa, the AAP activities coordinator supporting the students during their shopping trip, helped Hurlocker consider the purchase.

"Is this in your budget, Alec?" Lanspa asked.

Hurlocker didn't have his budget with him, so Lanspa presented other information to consider.

"Would this be very easy to carry home tonight?" Lanspa inquired about the bulky, boxed item that weighed a few pounds.

"No," Hurlocker replied, and he moved on to the next aisle.

Lanspa said autism presents differently in each individual, so she modifies her guidance for each student based on the individual level of support needed when performing activities. The last participant to complete their shopping said anxiety is a prevalent part of their experience of autism.

It made its presence felt as the student was trying to locate the last item on the list needed for the week ahead. Lanspa pointed to the appropriate aisle and instructed, "Now go ahead and find it yourself."

Lanspa walked behind the registers where the other students were bagging their groceries. She watched as the last shopper entered the checkout lane behind two unaffiliated customers.

"This is a big moment," Lanspa said with eagerness. The student had never gone through the lane unassisted before. The student nervously fidgeted and looked to Lanspa from about 50 feet away several times as the preceding customers in line completed their purchases. Keeping her attention fixed on the student the entire time, Lanspa nodded affirmatively and shot a thumbs up into the air each time doubt crept in during the transaction process.

The Aldi employee rang up the last item, swiped the student's payment card and provided the receipt for another one of the dozens of transactions processed at that register that day, but none more significant. The student smiled when rejoining the group.

On the walk home, the same student, who was initially apprehensive about sharing personal details, talked openly about the anxiety they manage on a daily basis, not being correctly diagnosed until junior year of high school and the relief that came with having a better understanding of why the slightest of intrusions, like an unanticipated incoming phone call, can set off overwhelming internal alarms.

The student shared stories about well-intentioned case managers not knowing exactly how to help in the past and the opportunity at Prosper Academy to be supported in a way that hasn't been attempted before in this community and most others across the country. They admitted there is no guarantee that two years from now life will look entirely different than it did at the grocery store this particular Tuesday evening, yet in only three weeks of being at the academy, successful moments are already happening.

Lessons in trying

Parents and other adults in the lives of Prosper Academy students are referred to as "supportive adults" and are highly involved in the student's journey to independence.

One of the most valuable deliverables Prosper Academy offers participants is a safe place to fail, Sutton said, something the world at large generally lacks.
"There are triggers that can cause students to have a meltdown, which I think happens to all adults, but it's a little different for somebody with sensory needs," Sutton said. "We're putting a safety net around them so that they'll be able to get back up and try again."

Tom Woods said something inevitably happens when people outside the autism community get to know his son Robert on a personal level. On trips to the grocery store, it's not uncommon to hear people calling out to greet Robert over shelves as they pass through the aisles.

"Robert has a huge heart and will help anyone at any time. He always provides a presence that is just open and receiving, and people just gravitate to that like you wouldn't believe," Woods said. "So in a humble way, not knowing it, he does create a big impact when he's around people, especially when he's around them for a while and they get to know him."

Parents and other adults in the lives of Prosper Academy students are referred to as "supportive adults" and are highly involved in the student's journey to independence.

"We've designed a support system and communication process to keep our supportive adults in alignment with their student as they go through these two years of learning," Sutton said. "We have information sessions where we talk about the logistics of the program, but we also talk about more of the social-emotional things like letting go [at completion of the program]."

Sutton said over the course of the program, Prosper Academy staff will work with students to identify the areas of their lives they would like to be able to manage on their own upon completion.

"Independence looks different for everybody. It might be financial independence. It might be to get a job that isn't just walking distance of the home. It could be to make decisions about their medical treatment or nutrition," Sutton said. "For some, it will look like,

‘I want to live in an apartment or a house on my own or with roommates where I’m not dependent upon my caretakers, my parents or other supportive adults in my life.'"

Helping supportive adults is a major component of all AAP programming, which includes community outreach and family resources; social support groups and activities; workforce training and consultation services; and independent living programs and services.

"We teach supportive adults that their student moving on means that their role in their life is going to look different. That's an emotional process to go through," Sutton said. "They may have power of attorney but may no longer need to make medical decisions or get to a place where their guardianship isn't necessary because the young person has the skills they need to make responsible decisions for themselves."

Kris Woods, Robert's mother, said Prosper Academy is creating experiences for her son that simply can't be replicated at home.

"Living at home and living out in the world are very different experiences. Robert had been talking about wanting to be more independent and felt like he wasn't getting opportunities to do that," she said.

Tom Woods said each independent living skill developed during the academy teaches the student how to complete an individual task or manage a specific situation. The product of all those experiences adds up to something far greater, with more possibility than ever afforded to his son before.

"He is building his capacity for life. All those experiences are built on top of each other and create a foundation of the 'I can do it' attitude," he said.

Robert Woods is indeed finding he can do it. He is working as a custodian at the Newman Center; each participant is required to have a job throughout the duration of the program. He's training for his first half-marathon, running eight miles a day on the Keystone Trail. Tall and slender with no visible body fat, he looks like he runs half-marathons all the time - he lettered twice in cross country in high

school. He plans to represent Prosper Academy at the run in Omaha later this fall.

When not propelled by his own sneakers, Woods has the bus route to the South Omaha Campus down. New skills like filing his assignments electronically and enhancing his note-taking abilities are forming and having their intended effect.

"It makes me a lot more confident. I remember thinking, 'Well, this actually looks pretty difficult, maybe I shouldn't try it,'" Robert Woods said of learning the bus route. "Then you actually try it, and I'm like, 'Okay, that wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.' And if I can do that, I can assume I can do a little more."

As he's learning new skills, he'll retain those that have always come naturally, like when one of his roommates lost his wallet the other day and everyone teamed up to help find it.

"All of us were just like, 'Well, that's Adulting 101 for you."