For students with autism or Asperger's Syndrome, it can be overwhelming to connect with peers and professors or take advantage of the many resources available to aid their success. But thanks to an expanding initiative called Building Opportunities for Networking and Discovery (BOND), opportunities for social and communication development among peers have abounded. The recent acquisition of a large five-year grant from the Baldwin Foundation will make this empowering program even stronger.
Established in 1968, the Baldwin Foundation is a small family foundation that primarily finances projects related to education, social services, and the arts in western Michigan.
Michigan State University has been supported by the Baldwin Foundation since 1977. Their donations have funded the Alumni Distinguished Scholars Program and benefited the College of Osteopathic and Human Medicine. In 2010, when donor and foundation board member Julie Wolf sought to make a contribution on behalf of her autistic grandson, Connor, the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities was brought into the equation.
The partnership between these three led to the establishment of a seemingly unprecedented program, called BOND, which would benefit students with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and empower the university to more fully engage and welcome them. In addition to personal contributions, the Baldwin Foundation's grant joins one from the MSU Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives.
When the program began, it served around 25 students, but that number has now nearly doubled. A product of both increased awareness and diagnosis, the number of students at MSU with ASDs has increased. Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that affect significant social, communication, and behavioral skills.
Designed to mitigate such obstacles, the BOND program aims to enhance social and coping skills, connect students sharing similar challenges, build self-esteem, and create a safe supportive environment in which to pursue opportunities. For instance, experiential learning provides a safe, comfortable environment to practice interpersonal skills.
Other facets of the program include individualized curriculum programming and service learning. The foundation's grant will help expand the program based on participant and coordinator feedback, to include outreach facilitation and mutual mentoring. Assistive technology is increasingly used to facilitate better time management and build interpersonal skills.
Julie is a passionate autism advocate and evidence of how much the RCPD's work means to her flows freely through her words. "The BOND Program and the RCPD team are spectacular in what they do with what they have to work with. They are innovative, they are hard-working, and they put things together so well that I feel blessed to even be part of their work by association."
The program has also made a lasting impact on its students. One explained, "Inclusive programs sponsored by the RCPD such as BOND made a world of difference to me during my freshman year. I can only imagine the benefits of a campus-wide social outreach [program] that aims to make everyone feel at home at East Lansing, truly proud to be a Spartan."
[BOND Program participants hiking in Lake Lansing Park.]