University of Chicago, autism
UChicago student volunteers foster creativity and belonging at South Side school

While volunteering at City Elementary on the South Side of Chicago, University of Chicago student Alli Marney-Bell was pleasantly surprised to discover the powerful impact of music on her students.

Marley-Bell is a volunteer among 33 other UChicago students who have taken up teaching roles at City Elementary. This institution focuses on creating a nurturing environment for the neurodiverse student population, which includes those with autism.

 Remarkable transformation of one of her students

On one particular occasion, Marley-Bell witnessed the remarkable transformation of one of her students who was usually minimally verbal. Through the use of music, this student was able to express himself in ways that she previously couldn’t through traditional means of communication. Marley-Bell recounts how her student went from being hesitant to participate in class activities to actively engaging in musical group improvisations and even composing with software.

It’s all thanks to the Music Sociality program, spearheaded by Jennifer Iverson, an esteemed associate professor from the Department of Music and current board chair of City Elementary. By using collaborative and discussion-based methods, the program fosters a welcoming and entertaining environment while simultaneously enhancing social skills among its participants.

As highlighted by Alejandro Cueto, a graduate student in the Department of Music and instructor in the program, music inherently promotes community and relies heavily on nonverbal communication and collaboration. This unique approach to teaching provides a fantastic opportunity for students on the autism spectrum to develop their social skills within a space where they can fully embrace their enthusiasm.  

Physical & Mental Health

One of the teachers who helped create the program, Simi Goliani, a third-year student at UChicago, also shared that their goal was for children to have a fundamental understanding of their bodies too. In the sense that it would allow them to care for themselves both physically and mentally, with regard to their well-being.

The program is designed to encourage self-reliance in neurodiverse children by teaching techniques such as calming exercises during stressful events or finding local health resources.

As elaborated by Christopher Flint, Head of School at City Elementary., studies have revealed that individuals who are neurodiverse visit the doctor less frequently and experience poorer health results than their neurotypical counterparts due to limited access. Hence, this initiative can play a pivotal role in empowering these children to comprehend and advocate for their own health, which is certainly commendable.

Testimony from Sherley Chavarria, a parent

Testimony from Sherley Chavarria, a parent of a student at City Elementary, highlights the significant impact of the new learning environment on her child. She has noticed a remarkable reduction in his anxiety and reluctance to attend school. Instead, he now enters the building with confidence and eagerly shares stories about his learning experiences at home.

With a supportive community, children diagnosed with Autism can live fulfilling lives. Illinois Autism Center is an example of such a community that provides comprehensive services for individuals with autism and related conditions in the state of Nevada.