Autism Didn't Stop Me: A Blackburn College Success That Fueled Program Launch

Annamarie Cosenza

Blackburn professor conversating with her students at the Lumpkin Library. HELP
Blackburn professor conversating with her students at the Lumpkin Library.

Brianna Sutton, Director of Blackburn and Beyond, shared the story about this Blackburn graduate, now a faculty member, and her journey throughout the education system with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

Take a moment to reflect and think back on your time throughout the education system.  You may remember exchanging laughs with peers in the hallways, school dances and events, earning passing grades, and even a favorite teacher.  For most, school was the host of many positive core memories and experiences.  However, for Annamarie Cosenza, school was the host of many negative memories and experiences. 

“I was completely nonverbal until I was four years old,” Annamarie of Carlinville, Illinois recalls.  “In primary and elementary school, the bullying started.”  For Annamarie, others would often make fun of her, talk behind her back, and create rumors because she did not exhibit neurotypical behavior.  “Anything that I did that was viewed as “strange” or “not normal,” such as unexpected meltdowns, resulted in me getting made fun of.  Oftentimes they didn’t understand why I’d have my meltdowns and would call me a crybaby.”  Annamarie recalls how people would speak to her as well.  “They talked to me like I wasn’t even human.  They would use baby talk or talk to me how someone would talk to their pet.”  Friendships became difficult for Annamarie to make as a result of how she was perceived.  Annamarie eventually made one friend, but that wasn’t until her high school years.  

“No one believed in me except for my family and friends,” Annamarie recalls.  Doctors told Annamarie’s parents that it was very unlikely she would even graduate high school and to not even think about the idea of college.  “When I was in 4th or 5th grade, I remember asking a school supervisor why school was hard and why no one liked me.  She told me it was because I’m ‘different.’”  Annamarie struggled academically and socially up until she was in the second semester of 7th grade.  “My very first case worker refused to give me services… and in one of the meetings held, they even tried telling my parents that I wasn’t ‘autistic.’” Cosenza’s parents were able to win the case and secure an Individualized Education Plan and related services for Annamarie with proof of her diagnosis and overwhelming data supporting her need for services.  “Once I was finally admitted to getting the services I needed to be successful, my grades started improving immensely.”  With continued services throughout her high school years, Annamarie was able to graduate high school and receive her diploma, proving many people wrong who doubted her abilities.  Annamarie wanted to further her education, and applied and was accepted into Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois. 

  “I want to help those that are like me, and I want them to go down the path of success.  I want to be the person that can tell them they can do it when no one else believes in them.”

Blackburn College is unique in that it is the only college in the nation with a student-led work program. Although it was a rough start for Annamarie, she attributes her experience in the work program to strengthening and developing vocational skills.  “It does encourage you to communicate more, you are responsible for covering your own shifts, and you have to self-advocate for your needs.” Admittedly, Blackburn offered the same general services and accommodations for neurodiverse individuals as colleges across the nation.  “While Blackburn did provide those tools for me, it wasn’t quite the right fit.  I struggled to explain to professors and staff my individual needs.  It was challenging for me to advocate for myself at the time.  I felt I needed more support.”  Through a study support group, Annamarie was connected to Dr. Cindy Rice, the current Chair of the Education Department at Blackburn.  “Dr. Rice met with us every Tuesday to provide us with resource support.  It was different from the normal tutoring program.  I couldn’t learn the same way as neurotypical students in that program, so it was challenging for tutors and my professors to accommodate me in the ways I needed.  Dr. Rice was able to convey things to me in a way that clicked, despite my brain being wired differently.”  Dr. Rice was in the process of creating Blackburn and Beyond prior to her encounter with Annamarie.  However, it wasn’t until meeting Annamarie that Dr. Rice was able to establish a way to connect with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities on campus.  From that point forward, history was made.  Annamarie expressed an interest in working any available position for Blackburn and Beyond.  Once a paraprofessional employment opportunity was listed for Blackburn and Beyond, Annamarie applied immediately and was hired. 

Annamarie, center, works closely with every student enrolled in the Blackburn and Beyond Program. Brianna Sutton, Director of Blackburn and Beyond, is pictured at right.

“Annamarie plays a huge role in the success of this program. She is able to connect with our Blackburn and Beyond students on a completely different level of understanding.  She is hardworking and dedicated, and I am honored to work alongside her helping our students prove their capabilities while being neurodiverse to the world,” says Sutton.

Annamarie stated, “I want to help those that are like me, and I want them to go down the path of success.  I want to be the person that can tell them they can do it when no one else believes in them.  I believe that anybody is capable of pursuing their goals, neurodiverse or neurotypical.  We are human just like any other human out there.  No labels should ever stop anyone.”