University of Cincinnati's IMPACT Innovation helps young adults become more independent

'It's absolutely just right'

CINCINNATI -- As a young adult with autism, Shannon Molloy tried several programs after high school to become more independent.

At some places, she would spend the day without doing much meaningful work, said her mother, Cindy Molloy. That caused Shannon to act out and made her behavior worse, her mom said.

At others, participants needed to be able to take verbal direction in a way that Shannon simply could not, her mom said. That also frustrated Shannon and made her behavior worse.

That all changed when Shannon started at IMPACT Innovation, a program at the University of Cincinnati for young adults with autism and significant needs. A partnership between the university and the nonprofit organization IMPACT Autism, it's designed to help improve the participants' communication, social and job skills with the help of UC students who work as peer mentors.

"I've referred to it as her Goldilocks experience," said Cindy Molloy, who also is an IMPACT Autism board member. "This program has a lot of very challenging activities. But it also comes with the supports that she needs to be successful in those activities. So it's absolutely just right."

It's also critically important at a time when more and more children are being diagnosed with autism, said Christina Carnahan, an associate professor of special education at UC and director of advancement and transition services within the school of education. IMPACT Innovation is one of three programs she oversees in that role.

As recently as 10 years ago, one in 10,000 children were diagnosed with autism. Now that figure is one in 68, Carnahan said.

"More and more, we're going to see kids leaving high schools and going into settings that don’t have the resources to support them," she said. "Our systems just aren't designed to provide the support and services that they need."

That’s where IMPACT Innovation is different. Designed with the help of parents such as Cindy Molloy, the program relies on the expertise of educators who understand how best to communicate with people on the autism spectrum.

"For many of these individuals, it has been a life-changing experience for them," Carnahan said.

It certainly has been for Shannon Molloy.

Day-to-day consistency

After graduating from high school in 2013, Shannon, who is now 24, tried a variety of different programs designed for adults with disabilities.

"She was getting more and more anxious, and we were getting a lot of negative behavior," Cindy Molloy said. 

That behavior included hitting, screaming and sometimes running away from where she was supposed to be.

Shannon became IMPACT Innovation's first associate, as the program's participants are called. That was in October 2015, and Cindy Molloy said her daughter's outlook has changed dramatically since then.

"I think this is the happiest I've seen her in many, many years," Cindy Molloy said. "Since she's been here, she's much more engaging. She's far less on edge. She really is calmer. I think there's a level of trust and predictability."

Broad questions, such as "what do you do here?" and "what do you like about the program?" don’t garner much response from Shannon. Her mom ran through a series of questions about what she does each day that she answered without any trouble:

Monday: "Ronald McDonald. Make bed."

Tuesday: "Findlay Kitchen. Dog bones."

Wednesday: "Teacher. Library."

Thursday: "Teacher's Café. Serve food."

Friday: "Center Court. Make pizza."

IMPACT Innovation has taught Shannon how to make dog treats for Brewhaus Dog Bones at Findlay Kitchen in Over-the-Rhine sometimes. She goes to Ronald McDonald House each week where she helps make beds, clean toys and wipe down tables. She has ongoing classes to improve her communication and social skills, and she has other job activities where she makes and serves food.

Shannon said her favorite is making the dog bones. Sometimes she gets to pet dogs at Findlay Market, too.

Shannon Molloy making dog treats.

"She knows what her day is going to be like so they can introduce novel things, and she can learn new things because so much of her day is going to be like it was the day before," Cindy Molloy said of her daughter.

Because the IMPACT Innovation staff consists of people who are experts in behavior and communication, they understand how to help young adults with autism improve their skills without inadvertently reinforcing negative reactions and behaviors, she said.

"They really know how to recognize the antecedents," Cindy Molloy said. "How to intervene before a behavior actually manifests and causes troubles."

But the program's associates aren't the only ones who benefit from IMPACT Innovation.

More than 9 to 5

The UC students who work in the program gain a lot from the experience, too, said Greg Stegbauer, a graduate student in school psychology who works as a research assistant for IMPACT Innovation.

Stegbauer works closely with the other UC students who serve as peer mentors to the program's associates.

The peer mentors who are majoring in education get valuable experience with the associates and how to apply what they learn in their classrooms to the interactions they have through the program, he said.

They also experience a sense of fulfillment when IMPACT Innovation's associates experience success, whether that success is big or small, he said.

"It's not just a 9 to 5," Stegbauer said. "It's a way to work with another person and gain a relationship with someone. You kind of have dual ownership of those successes."

Greg Stegbauer

The program hasn’t resulted in dramatic changes in UC's entire campus yet because it's still relatively new, he said. But Stegbauer said already there is a difference among the students, faculty and staff who frequent the buildings where the IMPACT Innovation associates and peer mentors work.

"It's just kind of more awareness of people with disabilities and how they can be integrated into the community setting and successful in these community settings," he said.

That kind of acceptance is a big part of what parents of the IMPACT Innovation associates want for their children.

"We'd like to see her continue to move toward independence," Cindy Molloy said of her daughter. "Our hope is also that down the line there will be a housing opportunity somewhere in Uptown. We're working to try to create an inclusive, affordable community that would be welcoming of people with disabilities, sort of modeled after this program."

Beyond that, Cindy Molloy and other advocates of the program are hoping it can be copied and made available to many more young adults with autism.

"They've really created something that just by sheer numbers has got to be replicated," Cindy Molloy said.

Shannon Molloy, center, with her parents Mark and Cindy Molloy.

More information about Impact Innovation is available on UC's website or on the IMPACT Autism website.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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