Support program recruits incoming neurodivergent students at U. of I.

A large group of INI students pose for a picture.

Urbana, Ill. — A fledgling four-year program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is recruiting incoming freshmen who are neurodivergent to help them succeed academically, socially, and professionally. Interested students and parents can register online to attend a virtual information night from 7:30 - 8:30 p.m. on March 6. 

The Illinois Neurodiversity Initiative (INI) offers a variety of services and support 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, who is the director of The Autism Program of Illinois and a professor of human development and family studies in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) where the program is housed. 

Last year, INI was introduced as a pilot program featuring its inaugural cohort of 10 students. Since then, the program has expanded to accommodate 26 students from diverse academic disciplines. 

“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, and those who graduate college often work in jobs that are well below their abilities, Kramer said.

However, awareness of the array of talents and skills that neurodivergent individuals can bring to the workplace is growing.  

State Farm is among first to support the U of I neurodiversity initiative. They are strongly committed to including neurodiverse students in their workforce, said Nancy Smith, State Farm Enterprise Technology/STEM engagement coordinator. Their support helped the INI program to expand, but more support is needed to meet the needs of more neurodiverse students.  

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 pre-employment 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 teaches the course, which fosters success in the classroom through skills such as project planning, teamwork, communicating with professors, and stress management.

Among other types of support, 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, encouraging them to cultivate friendships by joining organizations and meeting others who share their interests.

One of the students participating in INI said the program has helped her on a social level to feel connected to others and make friends.

Since family support bolsters the success of all college students, regardless of ability status, INI also 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.

Alex Gordan, a civil engineering student and member of the first INI cohort, says “Although having autism and ADHD has been a challenge, I truly believe that they are my greatest gifts. INI guides me through my obstacles."

Neurodivergent students who will be incoming freshmen at the U. of I. in the fall and are interested in INI should apply online by Monday, April 22.

Corporate partners can support INI in various ways, including serving as guest speakers, participating in job fairs, and providing search resources, internships, and donations. For more information on partnering with INI or donating to the program, contact