The College Internship Program was founded twenty years ago and has developed three national centers, the Berkshire Center in Lee, MA, the Brevard Center in Melbourne, FL, and the Bloomington Center in Bloomington, IN. The Berkshire program was designed for post secondary students with Asperger's Syndrome and Non-Verbal Learning Differences. The College Internship Program will be opening their fourth center in the fall of 2007 in northern California.
The Berkshire Center has 45 students, most of whom have learning differences. This past year they developed ASPIRE, which is a program that specializes in Asperger's Syndrome and Non-Verbal Learning Differences. Students typically come to the Center from their local high school or a private school. They are described as "nice" kids who have not been involved in alcohol and/or drugs, and without acting out behaviors. They may have some minor psychiatric issues but these issues are not predominant. Intellectually, the students were identified as having a minimum IQ of 70 and up. It was pointed out that students scoring on the low end of intellectual functioning often are poor test takers who more often than not have higher IQs than traditional IQ tests indicate. Berkshire stresses academic growth in its students, and perhaps more importantly, the Center is designed to help students improve social skills. The Center accepts students aged 18 through 26; however students who have been in wilderness programs generally need more structure than Berkshire offers.
The program is structured much like a typical college student's daily life. An important goal for the students is to learn how to manage a schedule and be able to deal effectively with free time. Each day begins with a "re-framing" hour, which helps students identify how they are feeling that day. They gauge how they are feeling in areas such as anger, loneliness, hunger or level of tiredness. These varied feelings are brought up and discussed, helping the students get on with their day. Residential and recreational experiences are critical for the students and help them practice independent living skills throughout the day. Daily skills include apartment and auto maintenance, home economics, healthy eating, team work, travel planning, fitness and religious observations. Dating and social skills are also stressed.
Berkshire Center has many avenues to help students gain independence and autonomy. First, academic and vocational assessments explore the functional level of each student. Students explore college courses and vocational training, including tutoring, study halls and study groups. They are provided with bachelor and post-graduate level tutors to help with specific multi-modal approaches. Local educational offerings provide training in a variety of vocational skills such as computer technology, secretarial skills, child care and a variety of other vocational interest that students may have. Course work includes remedial work if necessary. Staff makes considerable effort to identify each student's interest and skill level in vocational and academic areas. Once identified, internships and course work are provided for the students to help them experientially learn specific work and academic skills. In some instances, students are able to achieve certificates of completion within a year. The idea is to provide an experience for the students that will either rule out or pursue a specific job of their choice and develop an educational plan of action that will prepare the students for success. Many will ultimately acquire paid job experience. The educational program is designed to address individualized education and vocational interests.
Students participate in individual therapy to address a wide range of activities. Individual sessions allow students to discuss individual problems as well as helping them gain practical skills, which enable them to navigate daily life situations successfully. Group therapies designed to address each student's ability to live and function with others are carried out in each apartment complex. These issues can be as simple as keeping the apartment clean and improving inter-personal relationships. Therapists take a coaching approach, increasing the students' ability to advocate for themselves, explore feelings, improve social relationships, improve self-esteem, confidence, assertiveness, problem solving and improving communication.
The Center provides many research-based interventions in their clinical department. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy has the potential to rebuild brain tissue after brain cell damage or a reduction of blood flow to the brain. Neuro-therapy works to bring about a reorganization of the frequencies through helping the brain spend more time in those frequencies that it has trouble generating on its own. Auditory Integration Therapy is based on neuron-plasticity, the notion that the brain is not a rigid structure, but a dynamic evolving system that can be retrained. Reframing Process addresses executive functioning and emotional regulation process. Theory of Mind helps students learn to track what others are thinking and feeling by attempting to take their perspective. Executive Functioning classes address organization skills. A module called Hidden Curriculum class relates to various social-skills development. Finally, Sensory Integration studies gross and fine motor movement activities as well as sensory activities.
Each student has an advisor to help them develop both goals and methods to achieve these goals. Advisors strive to develop a mentoring role with students, supporting them through difficult times as well as sharing joy and camaraderie with them. It was clear as the day went on how important advisors are to the students. Sharing struggles as well as successes between advisors and students creates a very positive and healthy relationship between them. Advisors also serve as the liaison between the program and parents.
Students live in apartments or houses and have their own bedrooms. The focus in this area is to obtain improved daily living skills. They assume a rotating role in handling various chores, giving them exposure to the entire range of residential living. Cleanliness, laundry chores, bathroom maintenance, organizing the house and other skills are learned. The program also emphasizes an active social life. Every student participates in activities such as Health Club membership, community cook outs and attending plays; which are geared to improve the students' ability to communicate effectively with others. Students also receive guidance in handling business related paperwork like using bank forms, budgeting, bill paying, balancing checking accounts and vacation planning.
According to Mike McManmon, Executive Director, the Center desires to be the most notable program in the country working with Asperger's and Non-Verbal Learning Differences. The center believes that social and emotional growth precedes all other growth. Acceptance and understanding of self establishes a foundation on which the individual can build a productive and happy life. Mike presented an overview of his thoughts with us and I was struck by his genuine manner and clarity of focus.
I met with several students throughout the tour. While in some instances they were anxious when talking, they made efforts to answer my questions directly and honestly. It was crystal clear that these students were making progress, enjoyed the opportunity to talk with me, and were quite proud of what they are doing. They seemed to have genuine relationships with staff and their peers. The Berkshire Center was one of the highlights of my trip. The students I saw were engaged in what I would consider an opportunity of a lifetime.