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Meet the Round Table Panelists

Scroll below to learn more about our round table panelists that will be participating at the Career Development Gala hosted by CU Autism Network on April 17, 2024! 

Click here to get your tickets!

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Dr. Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin is one of the first autistic people to document the insights she gained from her personal experience of autism. She is a faculty member with Animal Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University. 

Grandin is an American academic and animal behaviorist. She is a prominent proponent of the humane treatment of livestock for slaughter and the author of more than 60 scientific papers on animal behavior. Grandin is a consultant to the livestock industry, where she offers advice on animal behavior, and is also an autism spokesperson.

Grandin is also an author and a University of Illinois alumni, among other college degrees earned throughout her educational career. 

Helen Edwards

I am a Special Education teacher at Thomas Paine school where I am finishing my 27th year of teaching. I taught 5 years in the Chicago suburbs right after college and then moved back to the area and have been teaching at Thomas Paine ever since. I completed my undergrad at Illinois State University, a masters degree in Education, Learning and Technology through Western Governors University, as well as hours towards a masters in Special Education through the University of Illinois. In my years at Thomas Paine I have worked with students of all abilities. I strongly believe all students are unique and deserve the opportunity to learn and grow to the best of their abilities. I have helped plan and implement functional curriculums for students working on not only academics but life skills, I have planned and chaperoned students during weekly community-based outings to expose them to opportunities to work on their goals in authentic settings, and I have taken on the role as Team Leader for the Special Education Program at Thomas Paine the past four years to help assist and collaborate with other teachers and administrators when questions arise with our students. When I'm not working I enjoy spending time with my son Logan, my boyfriend Jason, as well as family & friends. I love working out and golfing any chance I get.

Ashley Hinds

Ashley Hinds is the owner and creator of Impressions Design, a custom apparel company that was developed specifically to employ those with special needs. While working as a speech therapist at a local high school, Ashley saw a need for employment opportunities for students with special needs after graduating. This was especially true for those who are nonverbal or use alternative forms of communication throughout their day. At Impressions, a job coach or support person is provided to assist those who are learning new skills such as using a heat press to make the shirts, folding and organizing, and money skills. A variety of accommodations are also embedded into the daily routine such as sensory breaks, visual schedules and checklists, dim lighting, and noise regulation to assist in employees' self-regulation skills while working. Since its start in 2021, Impressions Design has employed 11 people with a variety of ability levels. In addition to providing employment opportunities to adults with disabilities, Impressions works with a variety of individuals and companies to give back to the community. As an example, Brooke Underwood, a young autistic artist, designs a new logo each year for autism awareness month. A portion of those proceeds send her to art camps and classes each year. It is Impressions Design’s goal that every person has a place to work at when graduating from high school, that will build upon their strengths while understanding and accommodating areas in which they struggle.

Cody Gaskin
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Cody is an adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Despite having ASD, he is raising his three children, two of whom have been diagnosed with ASD/Intellectual Disabilities. Cody also works IATSE as a stagehand.

Elli Graves

Elli is a senior at Urbana High School. She enjoys spending time with her family and loves anime. Through the STEP program at Urbana High School she is working at Pace and Salt & Light during the week. 

Jeff Hamilton

My name is Jeff Hamilton and I’m a Cross Categorical teacher at Thomas Paine Elementary School. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and got my bachelors degree from Aurora University. I recently got my masters degree in Learning and Technology from Western Governors University. This is my ninth year of teaching. I spent my first year teaching 8th grade Special Education Resource at J.W. Eater Middle School in Rantoul. My second year was spent teaching K-8th grade Special Education at Ludlow Grade School. For the past nine years, I have found my teaching home at Thomas Paine Elementary where I primarily work with students in grades 2nd-5th. My favorite part of the job is of course working with the students! I strive to make sure that all my students are given the right modifications and supports to succeed. I also believe that it is a collaborative effort and encourage continuous dialogue with my students parents. In my spare time, I enjoy spending time with family and friends, watching sports, traveling, running (trying to run a race in all 50 states currently at 22 states), hanging out with my dog Stella and being a high school foreign exchange host parent.

Melissa Kerns

Melissa Kearns is currently the Assistant Principal of School Improvement at Urbana High School. Melissa is a new assistant principal who has joined the Urbana High School team during the 23-24 school year. Her main duties are the Special Education designee for the building and supporting school improvement initiatives within the building. She came to Urbana from the Unit 4 School District where she was an elementary teacher, instructional coach, magnet coordinator, and a middle school assistant principal. Melissa has been in the educational field for 15 years and has served in a variety of positions across the educational and even non-profit setting. She herself attended Urbana High School and graduated from UHS in 2004. She attended Parkland College and Eastern Illinois University to complete her bachelor's degree in Education. She holds two master's degrees from American College of Education in both educational leadership and curriculum and instruction. Her next endeavor will be to attend a program to complete her doctorate in educational leadership in the near future. Melissa enjoys working with students and finds her super power to be building relationships with students and their families. She has passion for effective instructional methodologies in the classroom and enjoys working with staff to improve the outcomes for the students that we serve in our community.

Rob Zachary
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Rob is 56 years old and works as a stagehand with IATSE. He has been working as a stagehand since 1997, but joined IATSE in 2018. Rob has experience working alongside adults that have autism. 

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