On an average Friday, Teresa Williams is softening the limitations of autism. With a program of 21 high school students from various schools and autistic spectrums, she creates fun and challenging weekly activities with the help of UVU student mentors.
“We want the kids to have that idea that they can come to college and we’re actually giving them skills so that they can,” said Williams, UVU student and founder of the Excel Mentoring Program.
As a university, UVU has begun an autism initiative to help meet the educational needs of the state, which also has the highest rate of autism in the nation.
“[The initiative] doesn’t actually say that you have to come to UVU, because we can’t constrain [autistic students] like that. We wouldn’t want to. But UVU does try and get autistic kids to come here We, with President Holland’s initiative, are saying, ‘This is a school where you can come and be successful.’ It doesn’t mean you have to come here,” Williams said.
However, unlike some initial doubts about the program, the 21 autistic spectrum students have been able to experience many facets of campus life. Together with their mentors, students have, for example, learned jujitsu and self-defense at the top floor of UVU’s gym, worked on basic projects with engineering club and learned about video game prototypes from the Computer Science department.
“The expectation when they came is that we would sit and color with them. They are way beyond this.
Because the program gets students out of their comfort zone with a variety of social activities, students are expected to progress and even “graduate” from the program, according to Williams.
“We had one kid graduate last week hey just took him out because they said ‘ou know what? You don’t need this program anymore, you are doing so well.”
With certain activities such as learning jujitsu from Michael Pease, a jujitsu teacher at both UVU and BYU, both pupils and mentors get to work on social aspects of bullying.
“[With learning jujitsu], it taught them not just a skill about how to physically defend yourself but how to verbally deflect blows.He showed how to break holds like, ‘if somebody grabbed you around the head or if somebody just shoved you,’ but he also taught them just little things like, ‘you don’t need to pick a fight. You can just be funny about it and say, ‘not today you’re not’ Williams said.
With certain symptoms of autism, improvements might not only be social but physical as well. With a particular mentee, Williams witnessed a student’s motor planning skill level improve.
“We have another student and when first came he always came in a wheelchair. With the dancing activity, he tried it with the walker. The other day, when we went upstairs to do the jujitsu activity, he walked up two huge flights of stairs. He had us hold his elbows but he walked because he is just so excited to come here”
With practice and enthusiasm, the program hopes to help autistic students overcome the challenges of their disability.
At it’s beginning stages, the Excel mentoring program is only working through Wasatch Mental Health, which picks up students from their respective schools and drops them off at their individual homes after the end of the program. However, Williams and her team of mentors hope to expand the program while working on the logistical problems of getting more students on campus for mentoring.
“This is a pilot program. We’re hoping that we can actually start kids [in the program] younger than this because research shows that kids make that decision to come to college when they’re in third grade. We want younger kids here along with their parents, so they get this idea that learning is important,” Williams said.
Williams also sees the autism initiative having room to expand at UVU. But as for current students she is able to work with, she feel very fortunate.
“With the new [classroom] building, we’ll have room for 22,000 more students. I hope some of those are autistic students and they will come and be successful here, said Williams.
“These kids are maybe a little bit different, but not a lot. They are nothing that would set them apart in a crowd. They are vital and creative and hilarious and all the things that make people successful. There’s no reason why they can’t be successful in college.”