Pace Proves College is Good for Students with Autism and They are Good for Colleges

Students with developmental disabilities on the autism spectrum have been integrated into general education in public schools since the mid-‘90s. But what should they do when they turn 18 and see others their age heading to college?


Cara Halstead Cea 914-906-9680,

“Work is the best part of my day at Pace because it gives me the chance to meet a lot of people and prepares me for the real world.”
– Benny, student with autism

“I hope I never underestimate anyone again.”
— Emma, Pace University undergraduate


Documentary on inclusion class, “Look, I’m in College!”
chosen for 2008 Sprout Film Festival at Metropolitan Museum of Art

NEW YORK, NY, April 11, 2008 – Students with developmental disabilities on the autism spectrum have been integrated into general education in public schools since the mid-‘90s. But what should they do when they turn 18 and see others their age heading to college?

Well, some of them can go to college, too, and create valuable experiences for both themselves and their non-autistic classmates.

That is the heartening result of a gamble that Pace University took in 2005 when it admitted four New York City public school students with developmental disabilities, Terence, Benny, Donald, and Rayquan, to a special “inclusion” program.

Now the experience of being treated very nearly like collegians has helped them graduate into full time jobs and high levels of self sufficiency.

And it has helped non-autistic students in the classes they took see them as people rather than for their disabilities.

The four students are featured in a half-hour, professionally-produced documentary called “Look, I’m in College!” made by Ken Browne Productions. Chronicling a journey that took the students beyond expectations, the film has just become one of the 31 official selections of the 2008 Sprout Film Festival of films, to be screened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, about all genres of disabilities (, and has been accepted for airing on public television station Channel 21 this summer.

The festival will show “Look, I’m in College!” on Friday, May 9 at 2:00pm at the Museum’s New Uris Education Center, 81st St. & 5th Avenue, in the Bonnie J. Sacerdote Lecture Hall and the Art Study Room.

Shortage of Peers. Because of their challenges, the four students faced uncertain futures. But by 2005 they had done well with support in inclusion classes in high school at P226M in the special education program for students with disabilities operated by New York City’s public District 75, which runs programs at more than 300 school sites throughout the city.

The students’ problem was that New York City provides funding for their education through age 21, but once they turn 18, few facilities have been developed where they can associate with people their own age. At the time the first students came to Pace, Manhattan public school students with autism had not typically attended college. Pace opened the door for such programs in Manhattan.

With District 75, Pace developed the “inclusion” program for students with autism and other developmental disabilities in its School of Education. The Pace effort was led by Dianne Zager, Ph.D., the Michael C. Koffler Endowed Professor in Autism and the director of the Center for Teaching and Research in Autism.

Over the last three years, Zager has helped develop a significant program in autism education at Pace’s downtown campus, through which future educators are prepared for the growing field of educating students with special needs.

Subways to self-reliance. Terence, Benny, Donald, and Rayquan were accompanied by a full time teacher and two paraprofessionals from District 75 as they attended college-level introductory classes that matched their interests – introductory psychology, sociology, art history, criminal justice, nutrition, computing, and math.

The District 75 teacher and paras pre-taught them, modified their assignments, worked with them on study skills, and guided them as they began part-time, five-day-a-week campus jobs, including entering computer data, sorting, and other jobs in the campus bookstore. The students also received “travel education” in their preparation to get to Pace every day by public transportation.

The original goal was to provide a next step for students who are older than their companions in District 75’s high school sites.

But Zager says “the autism inclusion program at Pace has exceeded even our expectations.”

The students make the daily trip to and from school on their own. Though their work is modified and they do not generally take exams, they have absorbed the material in their classes, as illustrated by a section of the film showing some of them analyzing literature in class discussions. Their job supervisors rate their job performance highly, and several have been promoted to more challenging tasks.

Indeed, the first two students, who had to “graduate” from the program when they turned 21, have found full-time jobs, one for a large food service firm and the other for an electrical lighting company in Long Island City.

The program has added students each year and in the fall expects to be up to its planned maximum of nine.

Mutual understanding. Zager stresses that “this is happening without diluting the education we offer non-autistic students. In fact, it’s making education better for everyone who participates.”

Fellow-students have learned that students with autism and developmental disabilities are people, not case studies. “That’s what I’ve learned – to really not judge a book by its cover,” said Suzanne Hijeck, undergraduate student at Pace, in the film. “Just because you are labeled autistic or ‘LD,’ it doesn’t mean really anything. It’s just a part of you. It isn’t you.”

The school of education recognized that the four students could provide a unique teaching opportunity for students majoring in elementary education and so the four young men were invited to join a math methods class.

“This was my first opportunity working with students with autism of this age,” said Emma Hatton, a Pace undergraduate. “The first day, we did an icebreaker where we blew up balloons and bubble gum and took measurements. It was fun. The connection that we built in that class was great and it was something I never expected it. That barrier that might have existed has definitely been lessened for me. I hope I never underestimate anyone again.”

Robots on Mars. One student in the film says his first year at Pace was exciting because of the variety of classes he could take. In his first semester, he took psychology and a computing class where he and other students created a web site. Later an art class taught him to draw with charcoal and pencil. In math, he took part in group activities, and in a robotics class he was part of a “Mission to Mars” simulated by LEGO robots. “At Pace we explore different job opportunities,” he says.

At work, some students in the program enter data, sort mail, and do small jobs for faculty members in the Pace education school’s Center for Urban Education and in the school’s administrative offices. Other students work at the Barnes and Noble campus bookstore, sorting books, keeping the store clean, helping customers and giving out free samples. One works the cash register and the credit card machine. “Work is the best part of my day at Pace because it gives me the chance to meet a lot of people and prepares me for the real world,” says Benny.

The Pace inclusion program is part of a large school known as P226M, a special education “cluster school” with seven units in New York City including the one at Pace. Students who attend P226 M range in age from preschool to 21 and have diagnoses that as well as autism include emotional disabilities, mild/moderate intellectual challenges, language delays, and hearing impairments.

For more information about the film, including contact information to request a copy for screening at meetings and events, visit For more information on the program visit and District 75 at

Professional education. Since 1906 Pace University has offered professional education that combines liberal arts with practical experience and the advantages of the New York metropolitan area. A private university, Pace has campuses in New York City and Westchester County, New York. It enrolls more than 13,500 students in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in its Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Lienhard School of Nursing, Lubin School of Business, School of Education, School of Law, and Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems.

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