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U of MD: "Neurodiversity" program gets $1M donation

Nov 2, 2023, WTOP, Washington, D.C.: U.Md. gets large donation for program helping students with autism, neurodiversity

One of the first programs in the country aimed at helping college students with autism and other forms of neurodiversity just received a large donation aimed at helping it serve even more people.

In 2016, the University of Maryland began its Social Interaction Group Network for All (SIGNA) program with just a handful of students. Now, a $1 million donation will help the program expand beyond offering help to students who need it to get through college, to include help as they transition from school to employment.

“It is extremely important,” said Kathy Dow-Burger, director of Neurodiversity and Autism Transition Services at UMD. “We have some students who, if they didn’t have our support, they probably, within the first two weeks of school, may not continue.

“Transitions are particularly tough for neurodivergent people. …

About 15-20% of the U.S. population is considered neurodivergent, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Divison of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics. The category includes those not with just autism, but someone who has ADHD, anxiety, depression or who stutters, among other challenges.

While the program isn’t big enough to help 15-20% of the entire campus, Dow-Burger said “it gives us a platform to be able to communicate to other parts of the university to make sure that our students have access to all programming and support.”

There’s also hope that it can expand its mental health offerings to students who rely on the program to succeed in college.

“Mental health is a hot issue in society right now, on college campuses, in particular,” she said. “But then you add a mix of neurodivergency into that, and you have high needs to support our students to be able to work with maybe some anxiety or depression that they’re experiencing.”

The donation came from Martin Friedman, a 1992 graduate with a neurodivergent daughter. His family also donated $500,000 to the program just a few years ago. Without their generosity, “I think it would have been just a small program that was just making a little bit of a difference,” said Dow-Burger. “But now we’ve just got so much more room to grow.”


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