Game changers in special education and autism

The College of Education burst on the national scene in special education back in 1952, when Samuel Kirk founded the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children.

It has been leading the special education pack ever since.


Consider that Kirk’s seminal text, Educating Exceptional Children, published in 1962, is currently in its 11th edition and still going strong. And that Kirk contributed significantly to legislation that became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

No wonder that Kirk, who coined the term “learning disabilities,” is known as “the father of special education.”

“Coining that term shifted the way we could provide services for children with disabilities,” says Lisa Monda-Amaya, associate professor of Special Education. “Those kids no longer were falling through the cracks. They were receiving the services they needed.”

But Kirk is far from the College’s sole contributor to the field.

The College was home for nearly 40 years to Merle B. Karnes, who received the highest award given by the US Council for Exceptional Children, the J.E. Wallace Wallin Lifetime Achievement Award.

It also has been home since 1976 to Jeanette McCollum, professor emerita in Special Education, who has received numerous awards for her excellence in teaching and research.

Our influence has been far-reaching. When you look at who has been here and look as some of the more influential people in our field, you can many times trace their roots back to our College.Lisa Monda-Amaya

“Our influence has been far-reaching,” Monda-Amaya says. “When you look at who has been here and look at some of the more influential people in our field, you can many times trace their roots back to our College.”

The strength of the department is reflected in its national rankings: #8 in 2014 for its graduate special education program (2016 US News & World Report), and #2 in its 2013 undergraduate program (

Following are a few breakthroughs that show why the College continues to be a game changer in special education – and particularly in autism intervention.

Breakthrough study on ASD

Laurie M. Jeans, EdM ’08 Special Education, PhD ’13 Special Education, was a doctoral student at Illinois when she led a study that found that mothers of children with autism have higher rates of depression and stress than mothers of typically developing children.

By the time the children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) were 4 years old, Jeans discovered, more than 32 percent of the mothers experienced moderate to severe levels of depression, compared to 18 percent of mothers with typically developing children.

Jeans said the study pointed to the need for supportive interventions for both the mother and child. Practitioners should examine the individual features of each family of a child with ASD to determine what might be contributing to the mother’s stress and depressive symptoms, she said.

Earlier interventions for ASD

Jeans and her colleagues also found that researchers could identify many of the behavioral and cognitive characteristics of ASD when children are as young as age 2 – earlier than previously thought.

Jeans, who is now a professor of early childhood education at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, said that earlier diagnosis and intervention could help minimize or prevent ASD symptoms and behaviors and aid in academic and social development.

An earlier diagnosis also helps parents receive appropriate services for their child, because children need to be diagnosed with ASD before they can receive therapy services.

The Autism Program 

The College of Education not only produces game-changing research in special education and autism; it is home to one of five regional training centers of The Autism Program (TAP), which offers services to support people with ASD.


With a family is diagnosed, we are considered the first point of contact after that diagnosis.Linda Tortorelli, program coordinator, TAP

“When a family is diagnosed, we are considered the first point of contact after that diagnosis,” says Linda Tortorelli, program coordinator for TAP. “We offer education, resources, referrals, and we help people figure out how to start on this journey.”

Tortorelli, who received a 2013 Chancellor’s Academic Professional Excellence award for her work with TAP, acts as a system navigator for families and professionals. “I’m kind of the 411 for all things related to ASD,” she says. “I help people navigate the medical system, the educational system, and our community services.”

For parents and caregivers, TAP offers: 
  • Free individual consultations
  • Orientation programs
  • Support groups
For professionals, it provides:
  • First responder training
  • Early intervention training
  • Customized training sessions

TAP’s resource center has served more than 2,900 clients, distributed more than 17,000 learning aids, and produced more than 800 sets of customized educational materials for parents and educators since it opened in 2005.

Education events on autism

The College of Education also regularly hosts education events on autism and communication disorders. Recent events include:

  • A screening and discussion of the PBS documentary, Neurotypical, which shows autism from the viewpoint of children and adults with autism
  • Working with students with ASD: Issues and supports for university instructors
  • A screening and discussion of the PBS documentary, Best Kept Secret, which focuses on high school students with autism and their futures after graduation

In addition to those and other one-time events, the College recently held its 10th annual Goldstick Family Lecture. Phillip C. and Beverly Goldstick provide support for an endowment to fund the Goldstick Initiative for the Study of Communication Disorders. Their granddaughter was diagnosed with Rett syndrome, a condition that is similar to autism and makes traditional communication extremely difficult.

The legacy continues

The game-changing legacy that was begun by Kirk more than half a century ago is being ably carried on by a host of professors who help the College of Education maintain its status as a national leader in special education.

“Our faculty have had significant impacts in the fields of severe disabilities, early childhood, gifted education,” and many other areas, Monda-Amaya says.

And that impact continues to translate to better, richer lives for people with special needs.


Parents are often the best advocates for their children with special needs

There are lots of challenges in making sure kids get appropriate services. Parents often don't know where to start and schools can be overwhelmed. 

Meghan Burke developed the Volunteer Advocacy Project with the support of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. The project provides families with a 40-hour training on special education policy and advocacy. The project is expanding its impact by working with Spanish speaking families in the Chicago area who often face even greater barriers in seeking services for their children.



300 families have received support from the Volunteer Advocacy Project.


How we can better prepare students with ASD who are entering higher education?

Professors Stacy Dymond and Hedda Meadan-Kaplansky, with assistance from Disability Resources & Educational Services (DRES), and The Autism Program looked at how students with ASD are transitioning from high school to college and what the University of Illinois can do to make that transition a successful one

We know the number of students with ASD is increasing and these students are exiting high school and looking for additional opportunities.Stacy Dymond