CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Neurodivergent students who will be incoming freshmen at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the upcoming fall semester are encouraged to apply to a program geared toward helping them succeed academically, socially and professionally.
The Illinois Neurodiversity Initiative offers a variety of supports and services for students with conditions in which the brain functions, learns and stores information in atypical ways, including autism, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
INI is a comprehensive four-year program that supports neurodivergent students in achieving their highest potential in college and beyond, said program creator Jeanne Kramer, the director of The Autism Program of Illinois, the on-campus partner of the statewide TAP Service Network.
INI was launched last fall as a pilot program with an inaugural cohort of 10 students – including some sophomores – who had a variety of majors, including business and engineering.
“INI has been incredibly beneficial for our son,” said a parent of one of the students. “Before this program, we were worried he may not be ready for college. However, INI has helped him make the transition. In addition, INI has taught him a lot about who he is and what his strengths are. We are grateful to the program for helping our son become a successful college student.”
Unemployment rates among young adults with autism are higher than peers with other types of disabilities well into their 20s, and those who graduate college often work in jobs that are well below their abilities, Kramer said.
However, awareness is growing among major organizations of the array of talents and skills that neurodivergent individuals can bring to the workplace. One of INI’s goals is to see that students are successfully employed within six months of graduation, Kramer said.
Prior to graduation, INI students take a preemployment seminar course that exposes them to multiple industry partners with neurodiversity hiring initiatives. The course also fosters skills such as resumé writing and self-advocacy.
During their first semester on campus, neurodivergent freshmen in INI take a required course called Academic Strategies that teaches them how to reduce stress and achieve academic success using their assignments from other courses.
Kramer, a professor of human development and family studies, teaches the course, which fosters success in the classroom through skills such as project planning, teamwork, communicating with professors and stress management.
Among other supports, all INI students have access to weekly mental health check-ins through the U. of I. Autism Clinic in the department of psychology.
INI also offers weekly social events such as games, movies and outings that bring together neurodivergent students from across campus and encourages students to cultivate friendships by joining organizations and meeting others who share their interests.
Anna, one of the students participating in INI, said the program helped her on a social level to feel connected to others and make a friend.
Since family support bolsters the success of all college students, regardless of ability status, INI offers monthly meetings for parents of students in the program, Kramer said. With the student’s permission, their parents are invited to join these discussions, which focus on strategies for promoting their young adult’s success at college.
Neurodivergent students who will be incoming freshmen at the U. of I. in the fall and are interested in INI should apply online by April 15.
Those who are appropriate candidates for the program will receive invitations to engage in virtual interviews between March 13-April 8.