When Ben Mitchell arrived at UofL to study engineering, he might have been a little more lost than an average freshman. As a 17-year-old with autism, he was more than capable academically but struggled with social expectations and interpersonal communication.
To help him adjust to college life, Mitchell connected with Mike Miller, family field training coordinator for the Kentucky Autism Training Center (KATC). “We started off meeting during my freshman year one or two times per week to help me develop some social and communication strategies I could use to help advocate for myself in difficult situations,” Mitchell said.
Four years later, thanks to the unique collaboration between KATC and the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, Mitchell is a graduate student in mechanical engineering on his way to a successful future. The partnership is believed to be the only of its kind in the country to specifically pair engineering studies and students with autism.
Finding the right fit
A professional educator with expertise in autism, Miller helps UofL students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) become more self-sufficient and independent, then graduate and find employment. Working with 12 Speed School students this year, he utilizes evidence-based strategies that accommodate the unique way that students with autism may process information.
“Engineering is a perfect fit for kids with autism,” Miller said. “Studies often involve individualized work in silos, and they don’t have to communicate with a lot of people. The main subject areas like math and science are their bailiwicks.”
Mitchell discovered that his highly analytical brain was an asset in academic studies.
“As I’ve progressed through my mechanical engineering courses at Speed School, it’s useful for me to be able to think single-mindedly, objectively, analytically about these more abstract situations – to be able to look at things like differential equations and realize that there’s usually one or two different solution methods that allow me to always get to that right answer,” he said.
Social interactions can be more challenging for students with ASD, however, so Miller has developed tools that help them have more successful interactions with instructors and peers.
For example, Miller helps the students work on communication skills by initiating a conversation with a professor. They also work on understanding sarcasm and humor, which do not come naturally for people with ASD. He also encourages them to do some things out of their comfort zone, such as joining an academic club in their major, joining a social club or volunteering in the community.
Mitchell embraced these challenges to expand his social world, recently discovering the Cardinal Marching Band.
“I wanted to see if I could play music like my parents do as my own personal hobby,” Mitchell said. “Thanks to the analytical pattern recognition skills I developed at Speed School and the advanced social skills that Mike has helped me learn, I have been given the honor of performing multiple scores from memory as a baritone player at every home game for the UofL football team (last) season.”
Removing barriers, supporting success
KATC is a university-based program with a legislative mandate to enhance outcomes for all Kentuckians with ASD. Housed at UofL’s College of Education and Human Development, KATC delivers training for educators in the classroom, workshops for families and professional development sessions.
In addition to Miller and KATC, Speed School students benefit from support provided by the school’s academic advisers, career services and faculty.
“If we see something not student-friendly, we will speak up about it, remove unintentional barriers and make it a better experience for our students,” said Jen Zoller, an academic counselor with Speed School.
The faculty also play a role. Ibrahim Imam, associate professor for computer science and engineering who taught Mitchell, said faculty must provide certain considerations for students with autism.
“They just need a little extra. Sometimes it might be an extra 10 minutes on an exam, or they need to work in different circumstances, like maybe they like to be in a room by themselves,” Imam said. “Once the faculty becomes aware of it, it is very easy to work with the student and to facilitate their success.”
The diversity commitment
While ASD may not be top of mind when it comes to diversity, it is an important aspect of the larger diversity effort.
“It’s very important that the Speed School recognizes atypical neurodevelopment as something that makes a place diverse,” Zoller said. “We typically think of diversity as race, ethnicity, perhaps gender identity, but in the last five years, neurodivergence is being recognized as also making a place diverse and unique. It’s important to appreciate all the uniqueness of individuals and how those differences should be celebrated.”
Mary Andrade, director of co-op and career services at Speed School, supports the students as they move beyond college and into the workplace.
“Every student needs to feel comfortable in the setting, and we have a responsibility to identify how to make that happen,” Andrade said. “For some, it’s a sense of belonging – a sense of seeing people like them in the world of work, in engineering. We are creating those success stories and building this toolkit of approaches we can use with neurodivergent students. Each student we help successfully move toward that goal opens a door for the next student coming through.”
Seeing the impact
Miller said he is excited to see the positive change in students like Mitchell as he works with them through their college career.
“By his sophomore year, I had never seen such a turnaround in a student,” Miller said of Mitchell. “It just makes my day to be able to see kids go out there, not afraid to tackle the world.”
Mitchell said Miller has become a wonderful friend as well as mentor.
“Even now, I always look forward to meeting with him and sharing recent accomplishments in my life that he’s had a hand in shaping with the strategies that he’s given me,” Mitchell said.