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$1M Gift Transforms Program to Help Students With Autism, Neurodiverse Needs Navigate College and Beyond

Alumnus Was Motivated to “Turbocharge” Efforts to Make UMD a National Leader

By Rachael Grahame ’17

students play games at table in room

Students with the Social Interaction Group Network for All (SIGNA) play a card game at a recent gathering. The group offers training in social communication, executive functioning and self-advocacy for neurodiverse or autistic college students and is one of the programs benefiting from an alum's $1 million gift.

Photo by Thomas Bacho

An alumnus’s $1 million gift will boost the impact of a range of services for University of Maryland students and college-bound high schoolers with autism and other neurodiverse needs.

Martin Friedman ’92 facilitated the creation of the new Neurodiversity and Autism Transition Services (NATS) program that combines and expands support to several Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (HESP) programs that currently help 50 students yearly, with an increase in participants planned to begin next year.

Chief among them is the Social Interaction Group Network for All (SIGNA), which offers specialized training in social communication, executive functioning and self-advocacy for neurodiverse or autistic college students. It also educates neurotypical and neurodivergent campus community members to increase awareness, foster better communication and create allyship.

The gift also supports SIGNA Launch, designed to help UMD students gain laboratory, internship-specific or employment-ready skills, and two sister programs of SIGNA: PEERS, for college-bound high school students and their parents to help the teens make and keep friends using evidence-based social interaction methods; and EFFECT, for college-bound high school students who want to improve executive function skills, like planning, organization and time management.

“What this gift did is bring all of these services under one umbrella and make things more cohesive,” said Kathy Dow-Burger, the HESP clinical professor who has overseen SIGNA since its founding in 2016. “A lot of the things we are doing for neurodivergent and autistic students are related, but the ages of the students and the transitions they’re preparing for are different; college-bound high school students are preparing for higher education while college students’ next big transition is graduation, then employment.”

As part of the new Friedman Family SIGNA Endowed Operating Fund, Dow-Burger will take on a new title: Friedman Family Director of Neurodiversity & Autism Transition Services. She hopes to use the new funds to hire more staff to expand and secure SIGNA’s programs, as well as participate in advocacy and research related to neurodiversity best practices in higher education and autism employment, which aligns with the University of Maryland’s Fearlessly Forward strategic plan.

One NATS staff member has already been hired through Friedman’s gift, and three were created as a result of a $500,000 gift from Friedman in 2019, part of which also provided scholarships to students who couldn’t afford to participate in SIGNA.

Friedman is the father of two 17-year-old girls; Skyler, who is neurotypical, and Sienna, who is neurodivergent.

“I was moved by the work that they were doing to help these kids manage college, which is not easy when you're neurodiverse. College can be overwhelming for a typical person, so just magnify that by 1,000% for a person with special needs,” he said. “As the years went by, I kept up on SIGNA’s progress, and after learning what was going on and what they needed to take it to the next level, I just got inspired to do something larger to hopefully take the program to the next several levels of where it needs to be to help students.”

In the past, Friedman has also given to the Delta Sigma Phi Scholarship Fund, which provides need-based scholarships to members of the namesake business fraternity that he was a part of at Maryland, and the K9s for Warriors program to honor family members who’ve served—and Friedman’s love of dogs.

“I think there's still a stigma around special needs, and that there needs to be more education on the needs of these people and discussion about how they could be brought into the mainstream more, because these wonderful people can contribute to the world in a great variety of ways with help and accommodation. We don’t want to leave them behind,” Friedman said. “I’m hopeful that the University of Maryland can be recognized as the center, or one of the top centers, for education that helps special needs kids who would otherwise struggle to be successful.”

He also said he hopes his gift will empower Dow-Burger, and “turbocharge” her efforts.

Friedman’s support validates the idea that neurodivergent and autistic students are valued contributors to our society, Dow-Burger said

“It has also given me the opportunity to mentor and give voices to students,” she said. “Whether you are an autistic person, an early-career speech pathologist, or a student who's working toward that, mentorship happens in all directions. Because of that, I know this is not going to end with me. This is not my program, this is our program.”

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