CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Incoming freshmen at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign this fall with autism spectrum disorder can take part in a new program that will offer a variety of support to help them succeed at college and beyond.
The Illinois Neurodiversity Initiative pilot program will offer autism-specific services to promote students’ academic, social and professional success..
Often used in reference to autism, neurodiversity also comprises conditions such as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in which the brain functions, learns and stores information in nontypical ways.
Jeanne L. Kramer, the director of The Autism Program and the I-Ready virtual summer camp for college-bound high school students with autism, said the goal of I-N-I is to support neurodivergent freshmen from move-in day until they obtain jobs and graduate.
The program will address four types of skills or needs – academics, social skills, mental health and job skills.
Students in the program can participate in courses that promote self-awareness, self-advocacy and executive functions such as planning and organizing their coursework; a social mentoring group; and individualized weekly mental health check-ins with clinicians in the department of psychology.
While some freshmen with autism may have needed little help with academics and never had to study during high school, others may have received assistance through an individualized education plan or a 504 plan, a formal agreement with the school that protects students’ rights to reasonable accommodation, Kramer said.
Transitioning to a college environment where support services are decentralized and parents are not present to advocate on their behalf can make college particularly challenging for some of these students, Kramer said.
“Being successful academically at the university level requires many new social skills that most of these students won’t come by naturally,” Kramer said. “The first class that we’re getting started will teach participants strategies to help them succeed in their courses. These will include study skills and strategies such as joining a study group, communicating with their professors and keeping track of their deadlines for assignments and projects.”
Since many young people with autism have difficulty making social connections, I-N-I will offer a mentoring program in which peers will help participants practice the necessary social skills to connect with other students, clubs and organizations that share their interests.
Obtaining and maintaining employment also requires social skills and preparing participants for the working world will be a critical piece of the initiative, Kramer said. I-N-I will give participants opportunities to engage with potential employers through internships and other events.
“I have corporations that want to hire neurodiverse talent,” Kramer said. “The neurodiverse brain is wired to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, with the right support in place and the right people surrounding them. These are the minds that corporate America is really looking for.”
Two incoming freshmen who participated in the I-Ready virtual summer camp in 2021 were I-N-I’s first applicants, Kramer said. The goal is to have from five to 12 students in the inaugural cohort this fall.
“We want to keep it small because we really want to get to know these students and their families, and to understand and be responsive to their wants and needs,” Kramer said.
A support group for participants’ parents will be available as well.
“The question I get most often from parents is: ‘What does the U. of I. have to offer students with autism?’” Kramer said. “Everyone agrees the need is there, and now we’re at a point where we can do something about it.”
Students can apply to I-N-I online at https://illinoisaces.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_80MbZFe35LewwJ0.
The deadline for applications is July 15.