executive director of the Wisconsin Independent Learning
College in Waukesha. The school is an autism-specific,
post-secondary training program teaching daily living,
prevocational and vocational skills to young adults with
Eileen Schmidt/Special to
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
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
“They may need that physical movement to reduce their
anxiety, to center themselves,” Johnston said.
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
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
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
“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.”