By Lindsay Andrews
Neurodiversity is defined as a range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits across the human population. More and more, we’re learning that these differences shouldn’t only be recognized –they should be embraced, celebrated and included for the ways in which they bring a unique, fresh and brilliant way of looking at the world.
Mercyhurst University has mastered its approach to neurodiversity. In 2008, the Erie-based school introduced its Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM) to meet the needs of a growing number of neurodiverse students – in other words, those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders. “We founded the program to give these students an opportunity to obtain a college education and develop life skills in the process,” says Sam McCrimmon, Mercyhurst University’s vice president of advancement. “We determined it would also be a good avenue to help them post-graduation, so they could adjust and learn to be good colleagues for when it came time to enter the workforce.”
The AIM program is focused on the student’s holistic experience, helping them build individual foundations of self-advocacy, social skills and sound academic progress. The AIM students’ integration into an on-campus environment – with their specialized housing arrangements – and an experience that affords them a social, emotional and academic experience that can be enjoyed like the rest of the student body is of utmost importance. Mercyhurst’s goal is to help each AIM student build skills that will prepare them for life after they earn their degree, and working with employers to match graduating students with jobs where their natural abilities and newly honed skill sets will enable them to shine.
Some of the incredible services AIM students receive through Mercyhurst’s program include weekly assessment meetings that help students categorize their ideal learning environment, peer-to-peer mentoring and social skills training. From the career development side, students have access to an AIM Career Path program and resources that include vocational skills development and job shadowing, as well as Vocational Exploration Experience access to top business and autism employment initiatives where they can obtain internships and vocational opportunities.
“The average job placement rate for neurodiverse students is just one in four – at about 28 percent – but through our program its above 60 percent,” AIM Director Amanda Mulder explains, citing area insurance providers and global financial firms as a few of the companies that are aware of the AIM talent pool. “There are a number of companies that recognize this and are lining up to hire our students because they’re so well known to have incredible concentration skills and are great at things like cybersecurity. We’re always working to help businesses realize the success our neurodiverse students bring to the table.”
In addition to statistical gains, McCrimmon shares anecdotal evidence about how the AIM program has helped students. In one instance, a member of the Mercyhurst football team, who was educated on autism awareness, recognized the social cues of an AIM student and has since befriended and sits each day with them in the school cafeteria, making a big difference in their social development. In another instance, a driver’s education program that is designed specifically for AIM students has helped several students successfully get behind the wheel – something they might not otherwise do, since many people on the autism spectrum don’t drive. There are also opportunities for these students to visit a variety of new places through affiliation with the AIM program, broadening their awareness both of the world around them and their inner self.
For these reasons, the AIM program hasn’t only survived since its inception – it has thrived! McCrimmon explains that parents of students have become extremely close to the program and are vocal in their support. It’s been ranked third in the country among Impressive College Programs for Students with Autism and Best Value Colleges for Students with Autism; and its students have been selected to speak at internationally recognized events and on award-winning documentaries about what they’ve gained from the experience. The AIM program has been featured on media markets ranging from NBC’s TODAY.com to TEDxErie, and in Forbes magazine, C-SPAN, MTV, Autism Parenting magazine, and across many other regional and national publications.
Where does the AIM program go from here? McCrimmon says that while it is well attended by students whose families can afford the program, Mercyhurst University is looking to expand its reach to students from lower income families through a combination of state, federal and private funding. “There is an incredible talent pool among these students, and it’s one of the few that’s less tapped into than others,” McCrimmon says. “We’ve had students from all over the nation come into this program and benefit from it and we want to see others do the same – regardless of their economic background. And we want the word out to Pennsylvania businesses – you want these students! They want to come here, and we want them to come to Erie, live here and work here year-round.”
For more in the AIM program, visit https://www.mercyhurst.edu/campus-life/autism-initiative-mercyhurst.
Lindsay Andrews is director of member communications at the PA Chamber.