Students with autism and mild intellectual disabilities are discovering an enriching college experience through Georgia State’s media-focused IDEAL program.
While taking an upper-level film course in spring 2019, Na’Dyah Reed (B.A. ’20) made an announcement to her professor and classmates.
The course, Community-based Media Production, involved making a film. Reed and three others were to work with two Kurdish brothers in the Clarkston community to tell the story of their refugee experience. It was a six-person documentary film collaboration.
Reed was nervous about the project. She told her classmates and her professor, Niklas Vollmer, that working in a group felt outside her comfort zone.
“I told them I was autistic, and I had very high anxiety. I was nervous about working with other people,” Reed said. “It’s something I let people know so they are aware of it.”
Reed and Vollmer, an associate professor in the School of Film, Media and Theatre, had several conversations about Reed’s autism over the course of the semester. Vollmer had noticed Reed sometimes appeared distracted in his class — as he put it, “disappearing into her phone” with her head down during discussions. Other times she interjected out of nowhere. Was she “checking out” in the middle of class? Or was the posture a part of how she coped with autism?
Reed told Vollmer she had trouble understanding just how, and where, she fit in.
“I was impressed by Na’Dyah’s ability to put it out there, to own it,” Vollmer said. “She was vulnerable and didn’t use it as an excuse. And I felt good that the class was a safe space for Na’Dyah to tell that to us all.”
Though Reed was anxious about working on the project, Vollmer said she seemed to thrive during the production of her group’s film, and her presence onstage during a public screening — with an audience that included several area politicians — was a highlight of the semester.
It was not Vollmer’s first experience with an autistic student in class. As a co-founder of the Inclusive Digital Expression and Literacy (IDEAL) program, he’s instructed several students with intellectual disabilities, including IDEAL’s pilot-stage student, a young man who is also autistic.
Creating a College Experience
IDEAL was founded in 2016 at the Center for Leadership in Disability, part of the Mark Chaffin Center for Healthy Development in Georgia State’s School of Public Health.
Participants audit two Georgia State classes per semester over the course of five semesters — including one summer — alongside undergraduate peers, and in some cases graduate classmates. Their six core classes focus on technology, digital and media literacy skills, and communication. They take four elective courses as well, choosing from focus areas such as film, art, music and theater. The program gives students a college experience rich in media studies, as well as extracurricular and internship opportunities.
IDEAL is one of nine postsecondary inclusion programs across the state for young people with mild intellectual disabilities, according to the Georgia Inclusive Postsecondary Education Consortium. The programs have a graduation rate of 88 percent, and in the 2018-19 academic year, 140 students were enrolled, according to the consortium.
“There are about 2,000 students with an intellectual disability in Georgia who graduate or finish high school every year, and their skills or interests are such that they would really benefit from a postsecondary experience,” said Andy Roach, the other co-founding faculty member of IDEAL and an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services.
Georgia State’s IDEAL program is unique in its concentration on digital arts. While others largely focus on building skills for independent living, social interaction and general career readiness, IDEAL does all of those things while also taking advantage of being in the media and arts hub of downtown Atlanta.
“We realized we could, at Georgia State, do something unique around our program by focusing on film, digital media and the arts, and music production,” Roach said. “These are areas where we have a really noticeable strength as a university.”
As IDEAL started with seed money from the Georgia Legislature, Vollmer welcomed its pilot student into one of his classes.
At 19 years old, the student had limited verbal skills and expressed himself in fragments and non-traditional sentence structures. He sometimes said the opposite of what he meant.
As a filmmaker, however, the student communicated easily through a character he created called “Marvin Brainiac.” His films were depictions — adventures, Vollmer called them — of the young man’s journey through life with autism.
“You totally knew what he was up to in his films. He was speaking for himself,” Vollmer said.
As a student passionate about film but struggling to know where she fit in, Vollmer thought Reed could find a place in IDEAL and act as a bridge between matriculating students like herself and students with intellectual disabilities enrolled in the program.
“He told me, ‘I don’t see you as a student in IDEAL. I see you more as a mentor. Maybe you can apply next year to be a job coach or a peer mentor to them,’” Reed said.
With the support of mentors like Reed, IDEAL students attend class and participate in the same coursework as their peers with and without disabilities. Reed said she feels a sense of purpose knowing the students she’s assigned to mentor are relying on her.
“I feel like there’s an underlying connection between a student with disabilities and a peer mentor with disabilities, because it’s like, ‘I get it,’” Reed said. “As a peer mentor, the main thing is just being there, being their friend and helping them grasp college life.”
“As a peer mentor, the main thing is just being there, being their friend and helping them grasp college life.” — Na'Dyah Reed (B.A. '20)
After a successful semester as a peer mentor, Reed, 22, has begun to lay the groundwork for another undertaking that supports the IDEAL program and its students — through its internship program.
So far, IDEAL students have begun or completed internships with local organizations, including Creative Loafing, CNN and the marketing firm O’Neill Communications, as well as other arms of Georgia State like the Department of Athletics. Spenser Norris, the employment coordinator for IDEAL, said talks are ongoing with additional potential internship partners.
Just as peer mentors support IDEAL students in the classroom, job coaches support them in the workplace during the spring and summer of their second year in IDEAL, Norris said.
“The first semester, students are with a peer mentor most of the time in classes. Oftentimes that mentor is a person who has already taken the class,” Norris said. “As students display their independence and engagement in the classroom, we scale that back. It’s the same for internships and employment. A job coach accompanies them as long as needed to help them get into the routine of working and to be a support person.”
With Norris’ encouragement, Reed applied for and was accepted as an intern this summer with Atlanta-based television production company Crazy Legs Productions. In addition to the industry experience Reed has been picking up, she’s also been forging a path for future IDEAL students to join Crazy Legs’ intern program.
Her mission is important to Crazy Legs chief operating officer Scott Thigpen (B.A. ’90).
Thigpen, whose stepson is autistic, joined Crazy Legs in 2011 after commissioning the company several years earlier to work on a documentary project with him. “A Powerful Noise” premiered in 2008 and follows three women — in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mali and Vietnam — as they work to empower other women and solve problems in their communities.
“Our mission at Crazy Legs has always been that we connect people through stories, so that was the first example of that,” Thigpen said.
The company’s portfolio of projects spans reality, scripted, sports, documentary and feature productions, including Investigation Discovery’s “Dead Silent,” TLC’s “1,000-lb Sisters,” Showtime’s “A Season With” and the feature film “His Killer Fan.”
Thigpen said he was moved to partner with IDEAL after being introduced to the program through his stepson’s school. He hopes providing internship opportunities with his company to IDEAL students helps people with disabilities to enter the entertainment industry in larger numbers.
“Inclusiveness is critical to our world, but inclusiveness is not limited to race, color, religion or even physical capabilities, and I don’t want those who are not neurotypical to be left behind,” Thigpen said. “If we can make sure we include IDEAL students in our internship program, they’re at least getting to the same starting line as others.”
That’s where Reed comes in. While completing assignments like dialogue transcriptions, Internet Movie Database edits and office work three days per week, she’s also creating step-by-step reference guides for each task a future IDEAL intern might be asked to complete.
“If Na’Dyah can come in and participate as an intern and be able to be on the receiving end of instructions and then modify them for any future IDEAL students, that’s a great contribution in my mind,” Thigpen said. “She can help us identify any blind spots we might have and help us create accommodations for things we may overlook.”
“If we can make sure we include IDEAL students in our internship program, they’re at least getting to the same starting line as others.”
— Scott Thigpen (B.A. ’90), chief operating officer of Crazy Legs Productions
Enriching the Classroom
IDEAL has grown steadily since its founding, with two more students joining the pilot student in January 2017. The first cohort of two students graduated in May 2019, and since then, six more have graduated. This fall, seven new students joined four others who are continuing their work and study through IDEAL.
As students auditing courses, IDEAL participants aren’t on a path to a degree, but they earn certificates from Georgia State and have been included in Honors Day ceremonies. Some may even go on to other educational opportunities, including bachelor’s degree programs.
The oldest of eight siblings, Isaiah Branford joined IDEAL in fall 2018 and graduated in May. His goal had always been to work in music production and engineering, but after taking the sound design class through IDEAL, he said he discovered a new potential path that combines his passion for music and film.
From a room decorated with movie posters— including one for the Quentin Tarantino classic “Pulp Fiction” — Branford recently spoke with Norris over Zoom about applying to enroll in a sound course at Clayton State University.
“Without IDEAL, I don’t think that would have been an interest of mine,” said Branford, 20. “It has really helped me reach my goals, and it has helped me learn about other opportunities.”
Robbie Land, a lecturer in film and media in the College of the Arts, taught Branford in sound design and in film production. He recalls one of Branford’s projects that involved designing the sound of a live basketball game meant to play under a film clip of a game that had no sound at all.
“You can imagine what that entails. You have to have this reverberating basketball sound and this reverberating audience,” Land said. “He did a good job with it.”
Land has had IDEAL students in several classes since fall 2018, and he looks forward to welcoming more. He said students like Branford are a welcome addition to projects and critiques.
“At Georgia State, we have a wonderfully diverse student body, and just having all walks of life in our classes always helps,” Land said. “It’s great to have people from everywhere come in and comment on these films that students are making. Everybody works together, fuses together and works with each other.”
IDEAL Program Seeking Support for Students
To help students in Georgia State’s Inclusive Digital Expression and Literacy (IDEAL) program access the technology needed for success during the pandemic, IDEAL has started a crowdfunding campaign.
Donations will be used to ensure students have the tools they need to continue and finish creative media projects, such as Wifi hotspots, digital cameras and software. The tools will be part of an inclusive sound and film production lab.
A $100 donation, for example, would provide a month of unlimited Internet access for two wireless hotspots. A $250 donation would fund the purchase of a basic video camera for use by IDEAL students.
To contribute, visit the fundraising portal here. For more information, email [email protected].
Photos by Steven Thackston.