California State University, Long Beach
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Disabled Students Services’ Social Club Supports Students In Need

Published: September 4, 2012

Disabled Student Services Social Club

Every Friday afternoon, a group of CSULB students get together in the University Student Union (USU) for a free lunch and to socialize.

Called the Social Club, the group generally has 15 to 20 individuals who attend meetings during the semester, with each of the attendees having some form of disability. To work with the diverse group, Nicole Smith, the autism specialist for CSULB’s Disabled Student Services (DSS), has hired interns from different colleges on campus and has about 10 volunteers to assist. The group meets in USU room 205 during the summer and room 305 in the fall and spring semesters.

“We have students with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, and we have a couple with autism spectrum disorder who are a little lower functioning, have a little bit more needs and needing to learn a little bit more,” said Smith. “And then we just have students on campus with social anxiety, so we have a wide variety. They can leave anytime they want but everybody stays for the whole two hours. This group is only for people who want to be a part of it. We never force anybody into it or anything like that.”

“The Social Club is a great vehicle for our students who grapple with social skills,” said CSULB DSS Director Dave Sanfilippo. “It has provided many students with some of the most essential tools necessary to interact and interrelate to their peers, family and co-workers.”

The club started up a couple of years ago when Sanfilippo and a former DSS disability specialist began working with a consultant from the Orange County Asperger’s Society and they eventually set up a meeting site on campus for students with autism.

“Students with autism or Asperger’s oftentimes do not utilize Disabled Student Services for accommodations, hence they do not hear about the Social Club,” said Smith. “I’d like to get more students to come so I try to get involved in things like SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising and Registration) and programs like that so I can make more students aware this free service that is available to them.”

The club provides a positive environment with social standards, expectations and social skills support. It is most appropriate for adult transition-age people on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Social skills are taught during the meetings, but not in the traditional manner.

“We talk about things that get the group going about their feelings,” said Smith. “We have different workshops, we have training, and we do campus trips. They used to play board games a lot and we’ll still implement that once in a while because that teaches patience and turn taking.

“The different interventions we’ve done have ranged from reading body cues to doing a mock workplace workshop where they actually get up and reenact different workplace situations and then we sit down and talk about it as to what people could’ve done differently when there’s a good situation or bad,” she added. “They actually really like it and they love to participate and be a part of something. They really like to act.”

Newly hired in October, Smith’s background was a perfect fit for the program.

“I used to be a teacher in a nonpublic school in La Verne where kids were either emotionally disturbed or had autism and I did that for five years,” said Smith. “I gained a lot of experience from there. In June (2011), I started my own business, a not-for-profit working with families who had children with disabilities and I would do a lot of advocating with the district and I go to the meetings they had at school. And then I would do some behavior management and private tutoring.”

Smith’s entry into the field is somewhat of a natural. Her mother, Grace Hanson, has been the director of Disabled Student Programs and Services at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut since 1998 and has known Sanfilippo for about 15 years. Hanson also earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from CSULB.

Smith’s educational background includes earning her multiple subjects teaching credential from Cal State Fullerton, an education specialist credential and a master’s in special education from Cal Poly Pomona. She is in a Ph.D. program at Claremont Graduate School for special education.

In addition to working with the students, Smith notes that there are other important components to the club.

“We have a parent education seminar twice a semester so parents can learn and come in and meet with us,” she said. “I also work with faculty on campus so were trying to spread the awareness of autism and disabilities in general, and the importance of how to include those students into their classroom.

“I’m really glad that the word ‘autism’ isn’t in the name of the club because I don’t want to be limited just to people with autism or people that don’t have a diagnosis just yet,” she added. “Maybe they just feel awkward or uncomfortable in social situations or uncomfortable talking to their professor or just have difficulties communicating. It’s really important that people know this venue is out there for them.”

According to Smith, there’s more of a prevalence of autism, especially on college campuses, noting that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention just put out a new study where it found that one in 88 people are diagnosed with autism.

“I think these students are now finding resources and are able to come to college,” she said, “and they’re finding ways to fit in and it’s our job—faculty and staff—to find ways to accommodate everybody. We’re looking for more people to be involved. We want to outgrow our room.”

Pictured in the front page banner are (l-r) guest Anthony Authier, volunteer Eris Gallego, staff member Nicole Smith, students Nick Kauffman and Erin Emre, and volunteer Judith Plascencia.