Learning Differences and AIM split

Melanie Todd, Staff writer

The Learning Differences Program and Autism/Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst, which used to be partnered together, have parted ways to become independent programs.
While the goals of the two programs are very similar, they work to reach their goals differently, sparking the decision to separate them.
The LD program seeks to help students have equal access to education, while AIM provides academic, social and emotional support for students diagnosed with high functioning autism.
The separation of these programs into two independent departments was inevitable.
“It helps [students] to grow independently. They aren’t focusing so much on academic skills but social skills too,” said Elaine Ruggiero, director of the learning differences program.
These goals of the Learning Differences Program and AIM are no different from the goals professors have for their students as well. They want to see students working in the field of their degree, but the students they serve may need some extra tools in order to reach this goal.
“Our goal is that they will go out and find a job that matches who they are and what they want to do and also minimizes their disability,” said Ruggiero.
AIM has a very similar goal for students in their program.
“Our biggest goal is meaningful employment. We want to be able to call them in the future and say ‘what are you doing? If you have a computer systems degree, I want to hear you are working with computers,” said Brad McGarry, director of AIM.
Since the pilot program began in the summer of 2009, AIM has expanded.
“We grew,” McGarry said. “We were in an office, three of us, and at the end of last year we had 31 students in the program.” Now AIM serves 43 full time students with four full time staff and two graduate student assistants.
AIM has several programs that work with students on different levels.
“We offer specialized housing with a housing director living in that building who is specially trained. We are one of the only schools in the country who do that,” McGarry said. “When you get into Forbes, Today.com, NBC, you’re doing something right.”
Additionally, AIM developed 161 social skill modules to work through with students such as independence, executive skills and time management.
In November 2012, representatives from AIM testified for U.S. Congress at a federal hearing in response to children with autism’s rising numbers.
“They wanted to know what we were doing and how we were doing it, who has their sleeves rolled up and is digging in,” said McGarry. “In the next few years there will be 50,000 adults aging out of children with autism programs and eligible for college.”
The Learning Differences office is being pulled in another direction. “We are taking on more cases with chronic health issues,” said Ruggiero.
“In the Americans with Disability act there are provisions from chronic health accommodations such as Crohn’s disease or arthritis. When a student has a flare up they need academic support.”
The Learning Differences program works with each student to find what tools they need in order to be successful. In some cases that tool is a student notetaker to help them take notes or the Kurzweil Personal Reader software program.
“They each learn a little differently but they still learn as deeply and as well. It just doesn’t go into their brain and out the same way as everyone else,” Ruggiero said.
The structure of the education system makes it even more challenging for some students, according to Ruggiero.
“In the American education system, we want you to sit still and read. 150 years ago, everyone was out and about working on the farm. We didn’t just say sit still and read all day,” Ruggiero said.
Despite their separation, the AIM and the Learning Differences Programs continue to work together to best serve the academic needs of the students.
“We utilize a lot of the programs through Learning Differences because they already have it figured out and are doing it well,” McGarry said.