The University of Arizona's Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Center is recognized in a new survey as an international model for higher education institutions when it comes to aiding students with learning and attention challenges.

While no national organization ranks such programs, Japanese researcher Nobutaka Matsumura, a professor at Japan's Kansai University, set out to complete an international survey of comparable programs in Japan, Australia, Europe and across the U.S., including those in Colorado, Illinois and Texas.

Matsumura ultimately determined that the UA'sSALT Center is distinctive given its established infrastructure, comprehensive offerings and its work in partnership with University faculty and the UA's Disability Resource Center, or DRC. The DRCserves as a national model for creating an inclusive and equitable campus environment.

"We aspire to be the leading international model and it is a wonderful affirmation that someone in the field is saying that we are," said Rudy M. Molina, Jr., director of the 33-year-old SALT Center. "Although this effort has been in the works for decades, we are finally ready, as an organization, to leverage the opportunity."

The center works with students who have a history of learning and attention challenges as well as those officially diagnosed with learning disabilities (LD), attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorders (ASD); providing them with comprehensive, fee-based offerings that include educational planning, tutoring, psychological services and programs that aid in students' social and leadership development.

The fact that the SALT Center exists independentally of the DRC, while still working in collaboration with DRC and others, to offer fee-based programs is unique, Matsumura said. His findings are detailed in a an article recently published in "Essays and Studies by Members of the Faculty of Letters," a journal for students and scholars published in Japan.

"This formation does not exist in Japan, and I believe it will become a model for Japanese universities in the future," Matsumura said. "I regard the SALT Center as the most comprehensive and ideal model." 

Matsumura is now working to inform Japanese institutions about how to better support students with developmental disorders.

The research is especially timely. In the U.S., the prevalence of ADHD, autism, learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities greatly increased for children aged 3-17 during two study periods dating back to 1997, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. And Japan recently passed the Act on the Elimination of Disability Discrimination, barring discrimination against those who have a disability.

"Going beyond reasonable accommodations capitalizes on the strengths of students and improves their learning skills," Matsumura said. "Now, Japanese universities are addressing the needs of students with developmental disabilities gradually and faster than ever before."

The UA center supports more than 550 students with ADHD or learning disabilities, both neurological disorders. Students with such conditions may experience a range of issues that can restrict their progress and success, the National Center for Learning Disabilities reports. Among those issues: difficulties concentrating and in handling assignments and tasks that have deadlines, troubles connecting with peers, feeling disorganized, having self-esteem that is lower than typical, and experiencing feelings of frustration or failure.

The center has enhanced academic support services in recent years, especially for high school students and those with autism spectrum disorder, a student population that is growing on college and university campuses, Molina said.

"Our model is universal in that we are professionals in diagnostics, but also leverage our understanding of the individual," Molina said. "We adjust to the needs of the student, and that's what everyone may want to do, but not every unit can because they might not have the resources."

He and Matsumura both said it is important that institutions are poised to aid these students and to elevate their strengths to help ensure their academic and eventual professional success.

"What is unique about our campus, though, is that the center has been doing this work for a couple of decades now, we just didn't call it autism," Molina said.

"Although there is a growing body of research around students with autism, there are still many more questions to address, particularly as it relates to support services in higher education," he said. "The research suggests there will be an explosion of college-age adults with Aspergers-like characteristics in the next five to 10 years and that other professionals and institutions are eager to know how we can position ourselves."

For Terry Matsunaga, these resources, along with others provided by University faculty members and the DRC, are especially important to ensure that his son, a UA senior who has autism, remains in school.

"There are a lot of proud moments. It's a proud moment when he passes a class, when he gets an A, when a professor comes up and says, 'I remember him,'" said Matsunaga, a research professor of radiology at the Arizona Cancer Center.

Matsunaga also said the work of the center's staff greatly complements the support his family provides as his son works through his academic program, maintaining a GPA above a 3.0.

"It has been very helpful and, at the same time, people are learning how to work with students like my son," he said. "It's a team effort. The SALT Center, DRC, the faculty, the family – it's all part of a puzzle that has to come together in order to get positive outcomes."

Matsumura echoed Matsunaga's sentiments.

"I think that the passion of the staff in an organization is the most important to start an important thing and continue and improve in its consistently," he said. "I feel that Rudy Molina and other staff at the SALT Center have the passion and love for students in need of help."

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