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New program at OU to impact those on autism spectrum

Norman Transcript - 7/22/2023

Jul. 21—A new program at the University of Oklahoma aims to provide support to neurodiverse students.

Neurodiversity refers to individuals who exhibit different behavioral traits, including those on the autism spectrum.

Impact360 is an autism support program that will launch in the fall of 2023 and will provide academic, transition, employment, independent living and social support.

Angela Barbour, associate director of the Disability Resource Center, said individuals with autism disproportionately do not get into higher education, and of those that do attend, most of them will not graduate.

"It's about 40% of autistic students that enter higher education, which is lower compared to the general population, but of those students, 20% will actually graduate," Barbour said. "There's a huge amount of attrition there. Academically, they may need minimal to no support, but it is in other areas they struggle with.

She said 59% of students will graduate from college, which is 39 percentage points higher than those with autism.

She said Impact360 is different from Sooner Works, a certificate program for those with intellectual disabilities.

"Students in Impact360 are fully admitted, qualified, and working to get a degree," she said.

"So what students with, you know, an autism spectrum disorder, tend to struggle more with in college isn't necessarily the academic. It's more often that hidden curriculum," she said. "Even just being on their own for the first time can be hard for them."

She said anywhere from 1.9 to 2.2 percent of college students at OU are on the autism spectrum, which translates to about 400 students at any given time.

"So, we have an estimated 100 new enrollees every academic year," she said.

Impact360 received its name because it provides full support or a "360 degree circle of support," for neurodiverse students.

She said many on the autism spectrum struggle with executive function, or the ability to self-start. This impacts time management, study skills and making new schedules.

"Then there is the independent living aspect," she said. "W3 can help them to remember to do their laundry, keep up personal hygiene, or help them to navigate having a roommate or living in a residence hall and having a roommate."

She said going to college requires students to make short-term and long-term decisions, whether it is choosing a major or an internet provider.

Impact360 will help students receive training on how to write a résumé and interview for a job.

The center will also help students socially, whether it is helping them to join clubs, make friendships, join the marching band or a Greek organization, or helping to navigate the world of dating.

Kendra Williams-Diehm is the director for the Zarrow Center for Learning Enrichment which oversees Impact360, and she previously served as a high school special education teacher.

"I worked with so many students who fell on the spectrum, and you would see really brilliant smart people either not go to college or go to college and not be successful at it," she said. "It's a shame from so many angles. We've got brilliant people who are capable of so much who are not living up to their full potential.

She said many on the autism spectrum are likely to enter STEM fields and make great contributions to society.

"There's other universities that have programs like this. The good thing is that they have good resources and models we can learn from," she said.

Abbey Childress, former senior student assistant for OU's Accessibility and Disability Resource Center, graduated from OU and is on the autism spectrum.

"Impact360 will help students on the autism spectrum by giving them a space where their individual needs matter," Childress said. "While many individuals on the spectrum have the ability to excel academically, classroom environments still often lack enough inclusivity for neurodivergent students."

As an autistic person who graduated from OU, she said it is sometimes difficult for autistic people to feel comfortable with themselves.

"Impact360 will assist in giving autistic individuals a space where they can freely be themselves, express their concerns, and it will form a self-advocacy and connect with others where they feel heard and accepted," she said.

Childress said she looks forward to seeing how the program will grow in time.

"As an OU alumna on the spectrum, it is wonderful to see how accessibility programs have grown at the university since I first began my OU journey as a freshman," she said. "I am truly excited for this program, and I am looking forward to seeing the positive impact this will have with students on the autism spectrum."

For information about Impact360, visit ou.edu/education/zarrow/impact360.

Brian King covers education and politics for The Transcript. Reach him at bking@normantranscript.com.

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