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UofL collaboration between Autism Center and Engineering students is first of its kind in the country

Mike Miller and Ben Mitchell meet in the Belknap Academic Building on a regular basis to discuss Ben’s independence, social and academic life.

When Ben Mitchell first came to the University of Louisville as a freshman to study engineering, he might have been a little more lost than your average freshman. As a 17-year old with autism, he was more than capable academically, but struggled with social expectations and understanding interpersonal communication. Four years later, thanks to a unique collaboration between the Kentucky Autism Training Center (KATC) and the J.B. School of Engineering, Mitchell is thriving and on his way to a successful future.

Recognizing a need 

The J.B. Speed School of Engineering and the Kentucky Autism Training Center share a common purpose,” said KATC Executive Director Dr. Larry Taylor. “That is to provide a supportive environment that enables students with autism to achieve their goals, and those goals vary with the individual needs, wants and desires of each student.”

This collaboration, believed to be the only of its kind in the country to specifically pair engineering studies and students with autism, involves a veritable village of support from KATC partnered with Speed School’s student services from advising to co-op to faculty and staff, as well as external supports such as the Disability Resource Center and Vocational Rehab services. KATC is a university-based program with a legislative mandate to enhance outcomes for all Kentuckians with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Housed at the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development, KATC provides hands-on training for educators in the classroom, hosting workshops for families, and conducting professional development sessions.

The partnership with Speed School took root in 2017 when Mike Miller, KATC’s Family Field Training coordinator, was asked by Heidi Neal, director of Student Success and Strategic Initiatives, to present to Speed School faculty and advisors about the holistic and evidence-based educational services and strategies KATC can provide to assist students with ASD.

“Engineering is a perfect fit for kids with autism,” said Miller. “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.”

Miller, a native of Murray, Kentucky, is a professional educator whose expertise in autism has helped UofL lead the charge to help engineering students with autism become more self-sufficient, independent, and then graduate and find employment. A self-proclaimed “off-the-wall instructor,” Miller is tremendously passionate about his job and the group of 12 engineering students he is working with this year.

Miller utilizes evidence-based strategies that accommodate the unique way that students with autism may process information. “They are rule followers, they want structure and want someone to say, ‘This is what you have to do. When advisors ask students to select from a choice of flight plans, for example, they say aren’t you supposed to be deciding that?” said Miller.

Graduate student Ben Mitchell show Dr. Kunal Kate the status of his lab project.

Graduate student Ben Mitchell shows Dr. Kunal Kate the status of his lab project.

“A student with autism might want to go into a lab group project and say, ‘You sit here, I’ll do the work and get us an A. You are all incompetent,” Miller said. “Of course, that’s not going to win many friends.”

But once Miller introduced “14 Steps to Doing a Lab” that instilled structure into the process, it helped the students understand their responsibilities while tempering the all-or-nothing approach students with autism might tend to employ.

Miller meets with his students weekly and in each year he asks students to do some things out of their comfort zone to help them grow and mature.

“For freshmen year, it’s join an academic club in their major, sophomore year a social club, and junior year, it’s volunteer work in the community,” he said. Miller and the students also work on incidental conversations by picking a professor to initiate a conversation with. “They don’t like sarcasm and humor because they don’t understand it, so we work on that, too. It’s the little things. They don’t know how to advocate for themselves because their parents have generally taken care of everything for them.”

To an untrained eye, Miller’s strategies might seem unconventional and even a little odd, but his evidence-based methods help students and produce results. 

Making a difference for students 

Ben Mitchell today is not the same kid as the freshman who walked into Miller’s office.

“We started off meeting (with Mike Miller) 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,” said Mitchell, now a graduate student in mechanical engineering.

“As a freshman, I saw the immense challenges before me in my early courses and something within me really wanted to rise to that challenge,” said Mitchell. “I wanted to see if by reaching out and asking for the knowledge and expertise of those around me, such as my peers, my professors, tutors over at REACH, I would be able to reach new heights that I never thought I’d be capable of.”

What Mitchell found in his academic career at Speed School was his highly analytical brain was an asset. 

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 that we’re looking for,” said Mitchell. Along with his academic success, Mitchell has expanded his social world, recently discovering the Cardinal Marching Band.

Ben Mitchell challenged himself to learning to play the baritone well enough to audition for the Cardinal Marching Band.

Ben Mitchell challenged himself to learning to play the baritone well enough to audition for the Cardinal Marching Band.

“I wanted to see if I could play music like my parents do as my own personal hobby,” said Mitchell. “Thanks to the analytical pattern recognition skills I developed at Speed School advanced social skills that Mike’s 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 this season.”

Mitchell said Miller has been a wonderful friend as well as mentor. “From phone conversations to face-to-face talks, Dr. Mike Miller has had the pleasure of shaping my journey as I grew from a young freshman into a seasoned master’s student preparing to graduate from the University of Louisville.”

Collaboration brings multi-disciplinary supports

Miller’s success with autistic engineering students has not happened in a vacuum, nor has it been overnight. In fact, Miller said it is the teamwork and collaboration with Speed School that has been the key to success.

Speed School advising, co-op and faculty work closely with Miller and KATC to ensure holistic services for students with autism.

Academic Counselor, Sr., Jen Zoller, who has been with Speed School for more than seven years, said Mike Miller has been a “godsend.”

“He’s an incredible resource,” said Zoller. “I have an immense amount of respect for Mike and the solid and genuine relationships he forms with students.”

An advisor’s role is to talk to students about what classes they are taking, challenges or struggles, what requirements they need for their degree and so forth.

“We do this with all students but students who identify on the spectrum do have other challenges,” Zoller said. “Our institutions intrinsically are designed around the white hetero-normative male, and anyone outside of those parameters may have struggles navigating these systems that aren’t built for them.”

Zoller said Miller can provide that extra layer of support and individualized attention these students may need to be successful. For example, many students with autism don’t drive due to anxiety and Miller can help with driving lessons or understanding the TARC bus system.

“His approach with the students is very similar to mine. He has a challenge and support style, a problem solver cheering for them but not sugar coating things. He keeps them accountable. Coming to college is not just about getting a degree, but becoming an adult,” Zoller said. 

“This collaboration with KATC works because the people at Speed School – my co-workers in Office of Student Success, Admissions and Advising – we are all very passionate and committed to student success,” she added. “We get fired up about it and 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.”

Mary Andrade, director of Co-op and Career Services, said she too believes that a successful collaboration comes from the right place – “a place of caring about our students. Our advising, co-op, admissions staffs – we all want to see these students as engineers, so we communicate, come to the table, put in time, effort, attention. To me, that’s what collaboration is – people who care coming together to support students that need it.”

Andrade works closely with Miller, meeting with students to develop a case plan tailored to their needs, and supporting them throughout the placement process and in the workplace setting.

Andrade praised the Autism Training Center’s commitment to Speed School students.

“Mike’s central to their success and their willingness to let Mike put his time specifically to [Speed] students makes all the difference.  I couldn’t do this on my own – he’s the glue that holds all this together … He has advocated for these students on every level. We appreciate that the training center has done that. It’s a model for the entire country,” Andrade said. 

This collaboration between Speed School and KATC also relies on the referrals and instructional support of Speed School faculty. Miller said one example of how he has worked with faculty is when a student may be headed for an emotional meltdown in class, they now have a designated place to walk out and an amount of time to cool down before returning, whereas previously it was disruptive to the class. While the flexibility of Office Hours TBD may appeal to most students, those with autism struggle with the ambivalence, so Miller worked with instructors to accommodate.

Dr. Ibrahim Imam, Associate Professor for Computer Science and Engineering, who taught Ben Mitchell, said that for students with autism, there are certain considerations that faculty have to be aware of to just facilitate their success.

“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. Once the faculty becomes aware of it, it is very easy to work with the student and to facilitate their success,” he said.

Imam said seeing students with autism grow and succeed is very rewarding: “Oh, this is like the cherry on top, I enjoy teaching very much, and that’s why I’m here. It’s even more gratifying to see these students through.”

Giving all students tools to succeed

UofL has embraced a commitment to diversity in all its forms, though it may not be top of mind to recognize ASD as such.

“It’s very important that Speed School recognizes atypical neuro development 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 neuro-divergence 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, especially in engineering, which is global.”

Essentially, what engineering boils down to as a profession in a simplified definition is problem solving. We need people from diverse backgrounds and with unique perspectives that may look at a problem differently and solve it better. 

“I don’t believe the world of work in engineering has been as embracing of diversity as it should have been in the past, added Andrade, “but diversity is coming.”

 

Beyond the classroom 

 

Milo, a social robot, is used for research in working with children with autism in the Louisville Automated Robotic Research Institute, (LARRI)

Milo, a social robot, is used for research in working with children with autism in the Louisville Automated Robotic Research Institute, (LARRI)

The collaboration between Speed School student services and KATC is not the only way Speed School is making a difference in the autism community. Research being conducted at the Louisville Automated Robotic Research Institute, (LARRI) may one day make it easier for children with autism to participate in social interactions with peers.

Using kid-friendly robots to teach social interaction, Karla Welch, associate professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering, is leading research funded jointly by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

“The goal is to do research on the next generation of robots for human robot interaction, specifically for working in interventions for children with autism,” she said. “We focus on social interaction, because that’s a hallmark of something that is difficult for children with autism – initiating social interaction, asking appropriate questions as well as responding to questions, and if they’re not interested in the topic, they might not give any response.”

Welch adds that it’s a little more comforting or less challenging for children with autism to interact with a robot, especially because of the technology’s simplified facial features and facial expressions

“Human faces can be very expressive, can be unpredictable. Initially, for children with autism, there doesn’t seem to be this apprehension of interacting with robots, because it’s less stimulus,” she said.

Welch said the mission is also to make a robot that can adapt to different people.

“While we’re kind of focused on children with autism, there’s some variety within that subject pool because we recognize that as humans there’s a lot of individuality, and that is also true for those who are neurotypical,” she said.

Culture of caring

Whether it’s marshalling the efforts of many to ensure college students with autism are successful or researching autism in younger children to intervene earlier to enhance social learning, UofL is looking to create a better world for people with autism. Miller said he has been overwhelmed by how dedicated Speed School is to its students, and explained one of the times he realized the extent of that commitment. When Ben Mitchell was preparing for an overseas travel opportunity and needed a birth certificate from California that seemed destined not to arrive in time, Speed School Dean Emmanuel Collins offered to fly with Ben to California and then to Chicago so he could get his passport.

“That was when I thought, ‘wow, they really care about these students,” he said. 

Check out more about the relationship between Miller and Mitchell here.

UofL collaboration between Autism Center and Engineering students is first of its kind in the country