MoSAIC offers options, hope for students with autism spectrum disorders

Road trip

Road trip: Members of the MoSAIC program went to a conference in Atlanta, Ga., to see Dr. Tony Atwood speak. The organization focuses on helping autistic students.

By Idris Garcia, Chattanooga, TN—The MoSAIC program at UTC has experienced success and is looking to branch out to the community.

MoSAIC, Mocs with ASD Integrated Community, is a program that focuses on helping students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). The program is in its fifth year, and disability resource center director Michelle Rigler said its growth has been something “magical.”

“We’ve stayed consistent in our approach, and they see that their feedback makes changes in the program so they invest,” Rigler said. “When something’s not working we fix it. The curriculum is built based on what they want.”

This consistent approach has led to a growth in the program locally as well as nationally, Rigler said.

“It’s becoming a draw for UTC and a program of distinction within the University because it’s personal and authentic,” she said. “This week we have meetings with kids from Ohio and Texas. The fact that we have talented, intelligent kids that could go anywhere choose UTC because of our program makes me proud.”

Rigler said the program’s growth has been important in educating the employer community as well.

“I want to say 90 percent of people with autism are underemployed or unemployed, so we want to educate employers and that helps make sure our students with high capabilities don’t lose their jobs because of those social skills,” Rigler said.

Chattanooga junior Sean Guerry said the program’s draw comes from the community aspect.

“It’s like you get to say, ‘Finally some one who speaks English,’ or its like they get it, they know what I’m saying,” Guerry said. “And not just the community of people who share my case of Asperger’s but also the people in charge of the program. They’re doing really good work here.”

Guerry said he transferred from Covenant where things were not working and has found a positive change at UTC.

“MoSAIC was just what I needed and it’s been very helpful,” Guerry said. “Instead of guilting me into trying to solve a problem on my own they help me with the problems that I have. If I’m disorganized, they’ll help me with that, if I’m going through a rough time they make sure people know that I need help.”

Sam Shacklett, a senior from Dalton, Ga., and a peer mentor within the program, said the students have formed real bonds, real connections and real friendships through the program.

Knoxville graduate student Amy Rutherford, a program specialist, said it is their ability to understand what their students need that allows the program to be successful.

“They like to have that direct feedback, which can be interpreted as being mean, but it’s what they need,” Rutherford said. “Making sure that they do all of the things that need, and learn how to control all of the things they need like registering for classes and managing their time.”

Shacklett said MoSAIC helps students find their strengths and identify with each other in a positive environment.

“We had a kid who felt he had nothing to offer, but he is very intelligent, he has a great sense of humor that is very dry and he is a walking encyclopedia, so this program helps him to identify that,” Shacklett said. “We don’t just throw a syllabus or textbooks at them, we have it to where they want to participate.”

Rigler said it is a safe place for these students to express them selves and be comfortable with who they are.

MoSAIC is having their annual auction, their biggest fundraiser, Nov. 15 in the UC Gallery. It will be a silent auction featuring themed baskets as the items, Rigler said.

“We have three vacation baskets, two outdoors baskets,” Rigler said. “These are things that come from local buisnesses and donors, so the community really supports us.”

Rutherford says they hope to have a good turnout for the auction so they can continue to fund it for students like Guerry.

“I still, in the long run, know that I need to stand on my own two feet, but ever since joining this program things have looked a lot less bleak,” Guerry said. “It has changed my college journey for the better.”