Meet Brianne Jonathan ’11, MA ’15, Director of AU’s Autism Initiative

Q: What is your background?
A: I have spent over a decade working in the fields of special education and therapy for individuals with special needs. The majority of individuals I have worked with have been on the autism spectrum, ranging from ages 18 months to adulthood. The truth is, for the past 10 years, I have spent more time with people who are on the autism spectrum than with those who are considered neurotypical. It is a field that I somewhat “fell into,” but it did not take me long to fall in love with working with this population.

Q: What drew you to AU’s autism initiative?
A: When the concept paper for AU’s autism initiative was first shared with me, my first emotion was elation. I was filled with joy in knowing the university I had called home for multiple degrees of my own was planning to serve a population I held so dear. However, shortly after the elation, I also felt my heart sink. I thought of many students of mine from years ago who graduated high school and entered college (or avoided college) without the support of a program such as this. I wished I could rewind the clock for them and tell them there would be a place for them to thrive in college, right near their hometown.

Q: You often talk about a “shift in mindset.” What do you mean?
A: In order to support individuals on the spectrum in a university setting, a mindset shift is key. Oftentimes, when an individual struggles in college, it is natural to focus on academics. As we know, however, there are so many other components to success in college. These include executive functioning, social and emotional development, and independent living skills. While it is true that all college students are being exposed to a new level of these at college, neurotypical individuals usually develop and advance these skills more naturally than those with ASD.

We know that these skills don’t exist in a vacuum; they intertwine and feed off one another. We do not want to wait until students are struggling with any of these components. Our goal is to proactively address each of these through explicit learning and practice opportunities as well as ongoing support. This approach truly provides an immersive experience for students on their pathway leading up to, during, and following their time in college.