All it took was an amazing experience with a private speech-language pathologist freshman year of college for Kathy Dow-Burger to launch herself into a career of service and commitment to others. Dow-Burger, who struggled with a stutter throughout her life, is now a speech-language pathologist and an associate clinical professor with the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland. An alum of the university, she has spent the last 26 years helping autistic students and students with communication disorders assimilate into college life and make the most of their learning experiences.

In addition to teaching hearing and speech science classes, Dow-Burger founded the Social Interaction Group Network for All (SIGNA) which helps students who want to improve their interpersonal skills and need guidance throughout college. The group consists of 30 staff members including training leaders, communication coaches, peer coaches and peer mentors.

Members participate in SIGNA to improve their social interaction, executive functioning and self-advocacy skills due to diagnoses such as autism. Peer coaches lead the SIGNA group sessions while communication coaches work to ensure the individuals achieve their goals. The peer mentors spend time exploring campus and the College Park area in both group and one-on-one settings with the SIGNA members to add diversity to their social experiences, Dow-Burger said.

The group has recently paired up with the University of Maryland Autism Research Consortium- of which Dow-Burger is the co-chair- to examine SIGNA’s effectiveness. Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician from the University of Maryland School of Medicine Dr. Charina Reyes is helping to conduct the group’s outcome measures. The conclusions will help SIGNA create a more evidence-based treatment program.

To further ensure SIGNA members adjust to campus living and academic demands, Dow-Burger works with the Department of Resident Life to ensure everyone understands the struggles of living on-campus with autism. Dow-Burger helps autistic students self-advocate their needs to Resident Life and brings attention to their challenges. She also works closely with the Health Center, Accessibility and Disability Services and UMD Career Center Disabilities specialist Nancy Forsythe to help SIGNA members transition as smoothly as possible into the workforce .

“Students on the spectrum have difficulty with communication in general,” Dow-Burger said. “Even eating lunch is difficult because it’s so social. It’s noisy, there’s different smells, there’s big crowds.”

Dow-Burger has also been working with Lucien Parsons from the Mixed/Augmented/Virtual Reality Innovation Center (MAVRIC) in the

Brendan Iribe Computer Science Center at UMD to create forward progress for autism education, appreciation and empathy. She and the other researchers are using results from two focus groups of autistic people to develop a mixed augmented and virtual reality program that allows people without autism to see what it’s like to have a spectrum disorder.

Dow-Burger hopes the program--which she refers to it as her “pet project,” but is formally called “INtent”--will help create a more accepting college community.

Dow-Burger serves her community outside the university as well, even developing a summer reading program her Hyattsville neighbor and colleague, Dr. Jan Edwards, and community members for children who can’t afford summer activities through the Hyattsville Education Advisory Committee. Their goal is for children to avoid the “summer slump” so they can bounce right back into learning-mode once school starts up in the fall.

Despite her busy schedule, Dow-Burger also spent years as a foster parent. One year, the mother of four fostered six children along- many of whom were involved in gangs. Eventually, Dow-Burger and her husband adopted one of these children, welcomed him into their family and helped him build a successful life. “I thought I would be used to helping people from my speech experience but this is different,” she said. “To have an opportunity to break the cycle and have people to support you is priceless.”

Kathy Dow-Burger with students
Kathy Dow-Burger with the fall '18 SIGNA team of communication coaches, peer coaches and peer mentors.

Kathy Dow-Burger