Year by Year
Along with their normal coursework, Mosaic students must take a weekly class that teaches them how to deal with their autism from academic, social and personal standpoints. Using textbooks written by Disability Resource Center Director Michelle Rigler, Assistant Director Emily Quinn and Mosaic Assistant Director Amy Rutherford, a different focus is explored each year.
Michelle Rigler, director of the Disability Resource Center, explains each year’s goals:
Freshman: “It kind of explains what autism is because a lot of times students come to us and they aren’t really sure how autism affects them. It’s a lot about getting organized and being a good college student. A planning system. Managing time. Setting goals. How to communicate.”
Sophomore: “All too often, students go through elementary and middle and high school being bullied because they’re different and feeling like an outsider. So we break down all those stories and have them rewrite their own story. They’re the hero of their own story. We help them build up their core identity, the things they’re going to stick to.”
Junior: “Typically, when you work with kids with autism, you try to exempt them from working with a group because it’s harder to manage. But we encourage them to work with a group … We talk about the value of developing your team with people who are the opposite of you so you’re harmonizing roles.”
Senior: “The expectation is that, when they get to the fourth year, they’re going to be in a supervised internship or volunteer work or something like that. Each chapter is developed around a barrier that somebody has told us they experienced at work.”
The first time Cody Barnes met people with the Disability Resource Center, he panicked.
“I nearly ran out of the building,” he says.
“There’s no nearly. He ran from us,” counters Michelle Rigler, director of the center who’s sitting at the same table as Barnes.
That was 2011, after he’d recently moved from his Ohio home to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. At that point, he had not been officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, so he was freaked out when approached by people offering help for a disability he didn’t even know he had.
Four years later, he now credits the DRC and its Mosaic program for students with autism for “essentially changing my life.”
“I was walking through life asking myself: What was wrong with me? Why did I keep screwing everything up? Why did I keep causing problems even when I tried to stay out of the way of things? Why did I, me, myself, keep destroying potential relationships with people for seemingly no reason.
“They basically gave me the understanding that there’s a reason those things were happening and it’s not just because I’m a failure as a human being,” says Barnes, an Engineering major who also has nystagmus, a condition in which his eyes twitch involuntarily.
Created in 2008, Mosaic was developed by officials in the DRC to help students with autism learn to navigate the ends and outs of college life. The original idea for the program was suggested by autistic students already at UTC, says Michelle Rigler, director of the DRC.
“I had students come to me and say, ‘All these accommodations are great, but you’re missing the boat with me. I just want to know why my roommate wants to kick me out or why my professor doesn’t want me in class.’”
While the first few weeks of attending college can be like drinking from a firehose for any new student, those with autism can find it completely unbearable.
“Freshman year was bad,” says Erin Maynard, who came to UTC in 2012 and is now a graduate student in Psychology Research. “A lot of meltdowns, and silent ones at that point because I didn’t trust anyone. Like it would just be withdrawing instead of going to ask for help.”
Diagnosed at 18, only one month before she graduated from high school, she completely understands why Barnes ran that first time.
“To have someone come up to you and say, ‘Hey, you’re autistic. You wanna come and talk?’ We’re like: ‘No! No, I do not!’”
CollegeChoice.net recently ranked UTC as No. 33 in a list of the country’s top 50 college for students with disabilities — the only university in Tennessee to win the honor. In its write-up about the school, the website specifically mentioned Mosaic.
The program currently has 41 students and they expect that to rise to a little more than 50 in the fall, Rigler says.
Mosaic is highly structured for its students throughout the entire time they’re enrolled at UTC. The core of the program breaks down into four components:
- A weekly, credit-bearing class teaches them how to deal with autism while at UTC as well as how to handle it once they graduate and head into the real world.
- Watched over by DRC staff, students must clock four hours of supervised study each week.
- Coaches meet with students a couple of times a week to discuss the development of such skills as coursework, communication and time management.
- Peer mentors help students face any on-campus challenges that come up, such as how to maintain friendships or what to say or not say in a given situation.
“The biggest challenge is breaking the black-and-white thinking,” Rigler says. “Kids will either see things as good or bad, a lie or truth, you’re my friend or you hate me. There’s no gray area. So we work on lot on teaching them the value of a gray area, and that’s really hard.”
Mosaic must pay for itself, she says, so it isn’t free for the student, costing $2,500 per semester. But the price hasn’t affected interest. Word has gotten out to the rest of the country — the world even — and now there are more students applying to the program than there are spaces. Along with U.S. students from as far away as Alaska, Mosaic also has attracted students from such countries as Germany and Egypt, Rigler says.
Program officials plan for 10 freshman students per year, she says, but it’s a “soft count” and the number can go to 12 or 13. Each batch of freshmen will be in the same Mosaic group throughout their time at UTC, she adds.
And the vast majority of Mosaic students stick around until graduation, she says. In 2016, the most-recent count, “retention rate was 84 percent.”
Internships or volunteer work is required during senior year as a way to acclimate students into the workforce they’ll soon be entering. Barnes did so well as an intern at Unum, they’ve offered him a fulltime job programming software in the Automation Technology division.
He again credits Mosaic for giving him the skills that led to the job.
“Throughout the years I’ve learned so many things that I would not have picked up on my own when I was essentially just trying to survive in the world,” he says. “That may be a little dramatic but surviving socially is a thing. You can’t fail it.”
Still, making it through all four years at UTC doesn’t mean the rest of your life will be gravy. Maynard, for instance, “fell flat on my face again” when she moved from undergraduate to graduate school. It wasn’t education; it was socialization.
“Everyone else would exchange phone numbers and emails so they could check up on each other with homework and all that,” she says. “I wasn’t aware this was going on, so no one had my contact information.”
And when she tried to fit into the friendship network, it tended to replace her focus on her coursework, which is critical for her to keep things in order in her head.
“I was trying to be connected as much as everyone else and something I have to understand is that I may never be that connected, but there is a level that I want to make friends and be part of that community.”
She’s resigned herself to the possibility — perhaps likelihood — that she’ll always be dealing with similar issues.
“It’s going better now, but that doesn’t mean that next semester we’re not going to come up against something else.”