MSU, Mississippi Department of Human Services continue to improve outcomes for those with disabilities

Contact: James Carskadon

STARKVILLE, Miss.— Mississippi State students and Northeast Mississippi children who need assistance because of an autism spectrum disorder or another type of disability now have more support than ever from the university.

MSU has expanded its services through several programs in recent years, helping those with a wide range of disabilities gain life, academic and social skills that will help them thrive and increase independence.

After receiving a $1 million grant from the Mississippi Department of Human Services last year, the university was able to significantly increase the number of people served by MSU’s ACCESS program, Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic, autism liaisons program, Disability Support Services and Student Support Services. As these programs have grown, so has their quality, turning them into models across the state and country, said Julie Capella, MSU Director of Student Support Services.

ACCESS is Mississippi’s only post-secondary program for students with intellectual disabilities and provides a complete college experience, along with a curriculum that encompasses independent living skills and internship opportunities. After completing the curriculum and meeting grade requirements, ACCESS students graduate from MSU with a certification of completion. In three years, the number of enrolled students in the program has nearly tripled from eight to an anticipated 23 students this fall, said Capella. Support from DHS has allowed ACCESS to expand its staff and provide more of the one-on-one support students need, Capella added.

MSU ACCESS program students gathered with guests for a reception at the end of the spring semester to celebrate their accomplishments. ACCESS student Rebecca Abney, left, shows her portfolio from the year to kinesiology doctoral student Yonjoong Ryuh, who helped instruct an adapted physical activity class. (Photo by Megan Bean)

“We have ACCESS students involved in sororities, they’re honorary fraternity members, and more,” Capella said. “They’re at all the sporting events. They all attend classes. They now have a Student Association senate seat. The inclusion and acceptance across campus is beautiful. What we do for each of our students is very person-centered. We’re trying to find out about you and what it takes to get you where you want to be.”

Dan Gadke, an MSU assistant professor of school psychology, started the university’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic in 2014 with the goal of providing high quality clinical services to the community, training future professionals and engaging in research to enhance understanding of autism spectrum and developmental disorders. When the clinic first started, it was serving five children. Now, clinic personnel meet with approximately 100 children every week, helping to fill the growing need for clinical services in North Mississippi.“We serve any kids experiencing development in an atypical way,” Gadke said. “We have kids with autism, rare genetic disorders, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy--kind of the whole gamut. We provide individualized treatment that is rooted in behavior analysis for improving behavior and building life, academic and social skills.”

A few years ago, MSU’s School Psychology Program and Disability Support Services partnered to create an autism liaisons program that supports degree-seeking MSU students with autism. The program pairs students who have self-identified as having an autism disorder with other students for support, in addition to the assistance they receive from Disability Support Services. The autism liaisons program also provides faculty training every semester. The program has increased from assisting eight students to now helping more than 40.

“With our autism liaisons program, our services are free,” Capella said. “Other places charge thousands of dollars a semester, but we felt that if these students are eligible to be here at MSU and they have a disability, this is an accommodation we should make.”

With funding from DHS, MSU also has been able to increase its support services for low income and first-generation students, which includes enhancing academic skills, increasing retention and graduation rates, and facilitating entrance into professional and graduate programs.

In addition to DHS, these student and outreach programs have received support from the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services and the State’s Department of Mental Health Services. Private donations for the programs also have been received through the MSU Foundation.

For more on MSU’s Student Support Services, visit For more on the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic, visit

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