WILC and Executive Director Terri-Lynne Johnson were featured in an article in the Waukesha Freeman. Read the story below or click here to read the full article online.

Terri-Lynn Johnson

Eileen Schmidt/Special to The Freeman

College helps autistic students develop life, job skills

By Eileen Mozinski Schmidt – Special to The Freeman
Oct. 23, 2018

WAUKESHA — A project for an expanded Wisconsin Independent Learning College was underway in Brookfield when a series of setbacks arose. Terri-Lynn Johnson had to inform the board of the private nonprofit school that the project seemed to be stalled.

Then Johnson had a late-night epiphany, thinking of the property the organization’s leaders had recently toured on MacArthur Road in Waukesha.

Admittedly, the space needed some updating.

“It had been empty for two years and needed a lot of work. There were ceiling tiles gone and damage on the walls, water on the floor,” said Johnson, executive director of WILC, a post secondary training and educational facility for young adults with autism.

But the building also had nearly 6,000 square feet of space and a location in the heart of Waukesha, with access to the amenities the school needed.

The “county has always been an awesome community,” Johnson said. And “we knew it would open employability opportunities for our students.”

It was the next step for the organization, which had opened in Waterford in 2012. The operation had grown steadily and was in need of additional space, according to Johnson.

So in 2016, leaders for the school made a commitment to the property at 1936 MacArthur Road, a lease with an option to buy.

With help from a construction loan, $45,000 in improvements were put into the building, Johnson said.

Now operating in its renovated Waukesha location, the college serves 17 adults ages 18 to 30, billing itself as “an autism specific post secondary training program teaching daily living, prevocational and vocational skills to young adults with autism.”

The college currently draws students from Waukesha, Washington, Milwaukee, Racine, Walworth and Kenosha counties, according to Johnson.

The school’s mission is to assist students in reaching their goals for independence, both in mastering life skills and obtaining employment opportunities.

“We teach everything from those daily living skills to recreational lifetime activities such as bicycling, walking at the parks, ordering for yourself in a restaurant,” Johnson said.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that autism spectrum disorder affects more than 2 million people of all ages in the U.S.

And among adults with autism, 3 percent live completely on their own and 6 percent hold paying full-time jobs, according to a Global Medical Education report.

At Wisconsin Independent Learning College, Johnson said, the school accepts any students on the autism spectrum, although staff has developed somewhat of a niche in working with nonverbal students.

Now renovated, the building that is home to the school features a large gathering room for lessons and activities, with exercise equipment on the perimeter which the students sometimes use as they are listening to lessons.

“They may need that physical movement to reduce their anxiety, to center themselves,” Johnston said.

Multipurpose spaces

Every space in the school is designed to be multipurpose. The architecture is all compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and features partial walls and glass walls, which Johnson said is recommended for those with autism as it accommodates seeing and planning ahead.

The school has a yoga and meditation room, an area for working on arts and crafts, outdoor gardens, and a vocational training area.

Johnson said the Wisconsin Independent Learning College staff works to provide resources that students are seeking, like a book club focusing on classic texts, and also offers a variety of social activities.

“When they’re here, they’re engaged with other students, working with staff, they’re part of a group,” Johnson said.

Student costs are covered by families, The Wisconsin Department of Health Service’s IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self Direct) program, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, grants, and school fundraisers.

The school’s training room is frequently retooled to suit what students are learning for specific jobs. On one recent day, shelves were stacked with food products for those learning to sort, match product codes and shelve. Another part of the room featured magazines to help students who volunteer at the library.

Johnson said the college has an 85 percent hiring rate for students who have gone through the whole DVR process, and those workers are earning up to $14 an hour.

“Our students in a job will train or learn six to 15 different skill sets. So if this particular job goes away, they don’t lose their job because it’s the only thing they’ve done,” she said. “The idea is to start with support and fade it out as much as we can.”