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Interview With the Creator of “The Network”: a Social Networking Program for Young Adults on the Spectrum

Associate Professor, Director
Ashleigh J. Hillier

Aside from academics, one of the most significant parts of college is social life. Particularly for people on the spectrum, meeting other like-minded students can be difficult. In order to help ease these anxieties, certain colleges have created programs for people to come together and start new friendships. One such social networking program is “The Network”— a meet-up program for young autistic adults at UMass Lowell.

The program was created by Dr. Ashleigh Hillier, who is the Program Director and Associate Professor of Psychology at the college. Professor Hillier has worked with young people on the spectrum for many years, specifically working to connect them with programs they might be interested in. The Network involves monthly group meetups for various fun activities with the goal of making meaningful connections. There is also a group for the parents which meets at the same time. Read on to learn about what Professor Hillier has to say about The Network!

Q: What kinds of activities happen in The Network, both on and off campus?

The Network is a monthly social networking group for adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) aged 16-30 years. The main goal of The Network is to provide an opportunity for young adults with ASD to meet others who they may have things in common with and who they can connect with. Each month we have a different activity – often something fun in the community like going for pizza, bowling, or seeing a movie. Sometimes we meet on the UMass Lowell campus for a games night or to just hang out. Parents / guardians also meet together in their own group where they share information and ideas. We also schedule guest speakers to present on relevant topics such as going to college, understanding SSI, etc.

Q: How has the club evolved since it began?

I started the Network in 2006. The original aim of the Network was more focused on educational goals such as presentations about financial independence, employment, relationships etc. However, the members really just wanted to get to know each other and have fun. Over time, more and more of our meetings were devoted to social rather than educational activities. We have around 15-20 members attend each month. Group members are also encouraged to meet up outside of the group and continue the friendships they have formed.

Q: What is the role of the volunteers?

One of my volunteers Danielle, has been with the Network for over 10 years and I literally could not run the program without her. She is amazing! Helena, a UMass Lowell alumna, has also been working with us for a couple of years, and she is a huge asset to the group. In addition, UMass Lowell students come and go each semester and they help us facilitate the group, promote conversations between group members, and serve as role models.

Q: What advice would you give to young autistic adults who are starting college?

We run a number of programs for students on the autism spectrum at UMass Lowell including a support group (“Connections”), and a Peer to Peer Mentoring Program (we also have a college preparation mentoring program for high school students with ASD who are planning to go to college). We find things students struggle with the most are related to organization, anxiety, and social issues. I would advise new college students to access the resources available on their campus to help them transition as smoothly as possible (e.g. disability services, academic advising, tutoring, etc.). I would also encourage them to attend different events on campus, join clubs, and socialize with other students as much as possible. Those connections and friendships are a great support system and will help prevent loneliness and ease anxiety.

For more information about The Network, please visit:
https://www.uml.edu/Research/Autism/services/the-network.aspx

Would you be interested in a program like “The Network”? How might a social program add to your college experience? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

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Olivia Tyson

Olivia Tyson is an educational coach who works for the ICE (Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment) Program at Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Massachusetts. She helps students in the classroom, as well as with homework assignments, social connections, and immersion into campus life. She also has a younger brother named Nick who has autism and attends a residential program. Olivia enjoys teaching, studying and creating art, and spending time with her family.

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