Adults with autism thrive at UC

O'Brien family says experience has been life-changing

The O’Brien triplets were born in alphabetical order: Andrew, Kelly, Megan.

If you ask Diana and David O’Brien to describe their 23-year-old children, they will tell you that Andrew is very sweet and loves doing puzzles. He loves work and his job. Kelly is independent, loyal and has strong opinions. She is a “daddy’s girl,” loves language and being outside. Megan loves to cook, laugh and is very organized. She’s the boss of the family and keeps us laughing, they say.

The three O’Brien children currently spend their weekdays cultivating these passions and skills as participants of UC’s Impact Innovation program. Created for adults with autism, Impact Innovation exists under the umbrella of Advancement and Transition Services (ATS) in the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services (CECH).

Their day-to-day experiences – walking across campus to internships, lunch at local restaurants and developing friendships – have been life-changing for the entire family.

“This is a way for them to be in an inclusive environment where they can learn job skills, work on social skills and be engaged in society. Their alternative is to sit at home in front of the TV.”

Diana O'Brien

“There are really no good options for young adults with autism to be active and participate in the community,” says Diana. “This is a way for them to be in an inclusive environment where they can learn job skills, work on social skills and be engaged in society. Their alternative is to sit at home in front of the TV.”

Parents of adult children with autism and other intellectual disabilities are challenged once high school ends and services disappear. The O’Briens dreamed of a reality where these young people could learn, be a part of the community and thrive. A grant from the foundation that the O’Brien’s helped to start, Impact Autism, has allowed Christi Carnahan, director of ATS, and her team to research best practices and construct a slate of programs at UC that are making an impact on this community.

Three years after its creation, UC’s Impact Innovation now serves 20 adults who learn through vocational internships on and off campus; exercise at the UC Campus Recreation Center and participate in a wide range of classes and activities including book club, music and social skills.

Andrew, Kelly and Megan begin their days at UC when they arrive at 9 a.m. via transportation provided by the program. They check in at their cubicles or desks where they store their belongings. These spaces are personalized with calendars, photos, or in Megan’s case, beautiful collages she creates from vivid pieces of paper. Each individual has a schedule. Andrew walks to his internships at UC Laundry and Walgreens. He spends the remainder of his day at the Rec Center or in classes. Kelly completes vocational tasks; the program has helped her master public interactions. Megan has an internship at Mick & Mack’s on campus.

UC’s Impact Innovation program is responsible for raising half its budget— about $250,000 — each year through private philanthropy. Many of the individuals it serves live at or below poverty level and are unable to contribute to costs.

The program’s success is tied to the generosity of others, and the O’Briens have played a huge role in Impact Autism’s support. To date, the foundation has donated nearly $800,000 towards research and operating costs within ATS. More financial help is needed, especially as the autism population continues to increase.

“This is a real opportunity to change lives, and this is a population that tends not to be served,” says Diana. “The difference that donors are making in these kids’ lives is amazing. If it wasn’t here, I don’t know what we would do.”

Traditional UC students are also impacted by these program. ATS employs a number of students who work closely with the participants, and many others simply interact with the participants as they all go about their day.  

“I think our kids have had a huge influence on a number of students at UC,” David says. “They probably have more acceptance and tolerance than they might have had otherwise.”

Morgan Smith, a former Impact Innovation employee and UC student, says the program taught her to be an advocate for those with autism.  

“Forming friendships is what I will cherish the most,” she says. “It’s always good to know I have a friend like Megan will be up to eating some Keystone mac and cheese with me!”

That freedom to explore friendships, campus and the world has been invaluable for the triplets, says David.

“Kids with special needs have typically been in closed settings. It can be kind of suffocating,” he says. “They come here and literally the whole campus is open to them. It has just opened up the world.”

Featured image at top: the O'Brien Family: Andrew, Diana, Megan, David and Kelly. Photo/Jaclyn Poeschl/UC Foundation.

Learn more about Advancement and Transition Services. For information on how to support this program, please contact Chris Eden at or 513-556-0912.

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