Autistic students to get college experience at FIU

The Dan Marino Foundation has opened up a second campus at FIU.
The Dan Marino Foundation has opened up a second campus at FIU.

Parenting is never easy. But for those who have children with autism spectrum disorder, the challenges are even more complex.

“We struggle,” said Nicole Attong, who has a daughter who is developmentally and visually impaired. She worries what will happen to her when she no longer has a living parent.

“Where are they going to work?” she asked. “How are they going to support themselves?”

Attong is the director of operations of FIU Embrace, a program developed by Florida International University’s medical school to help adults with autism spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopmental disorders. It recently partnered with the Dan Marino Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on autism, to help adults gain independence through education and job training. The goal is to provide the skills so a person has a better chance of getting a job or landing a higher-paying one.

“We both have a desire to help these individuals live fulfilling and productive lives,” Attong said.

Starting this month, classes will be offered at FIU’s main campus in West Miami-Dade as part of the Dan Marino Foundation’s post-secondary education program.

Mary Partin, CEO of the Fort Lauderdale-based Dan Marino Foundation, said the partnership will allow students to get a more complete college experience by taking classes on campus, interacting with students and professors and availing themselves of the university’s services.

“This really allows us to take a great program that we have, that’s successful … [and] adds such a huge social component,” Partin said. “To be on a campus. To walk through their student union, to really interact with other young people their age.”

And it will benefit FIU, too. Students will work with the Marino Foundation on behavioral and medical research, and share what they’ve learned with those who teach students with developmental disabilities.

“We feel like we’re on the cutting edge of the next step for these people,” Attong said.

Partin said the first class will have 32 students, growing to 50 next year.

“Every time we’re able to take a step closer and do one more thing,“ Attong said. “As a parent, this brings hope. There is some relief.”