Keely Schmerber hopes experiences, education will improve the lives of people with autism

Keely Schmerber

After nearly ten years at IU, graduate student Keely Schmerber has found herself at the IU School of Education hoping to make a difference for students with autism.

Schmerber’s relationship with IU began when she stepped onto the IU campus for the first time at age 15 after receiving an artistic merit scholarship to attend the Jacobs School's International Summer Piano Academy. Originally from New Jersey and away from home for the first time, it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with IU.

After graduating with High Distinction from the Jacobs School of Music with a Bachelor's in Piano Performance and a Certificate of Entrepreneurship from the Kelley School of Business, Schmerber spent two years working at school for students with special needs back in New Jersey, earning as much hands-on experience in the field as possible. She was also inspired by an experience during the summer between her sophomore and junior year when she mentored an 11-year-old boy with autism from Ethiopia, something she called very personal, as she too has autism.

As a person with autism myself, I can be an ambassador for children from an underrepresented population, who at times do not have a voice.

Keely Schmerber

“My experience that summer taught me that, as a person with autism myself, I can be an ambassador for children from an underrepresented population, who at times do not have a voice,” Schmerber said. “ This in turn created a calling in me: building on my twenty-plus years in piano performance, my business knowledge in entrepreneurship and my personal narrative and education in special education and autism, I plan to open a music academy and academic school for students with autism. I plan to not stop at one school, but open a chain of many more schools.”

Now she is earning her Master of Science in Special Education with an Autism Emphasis, having received IU's Educational Opportunity Fellowship for two consecutive years to do so. She is also writing her master's thesis, You're Hired: the High Unemployment Rate for Adults with Autism and How to Change This Statistic's Trajectory, on the high unemployment rate for adults with autism and what can be done to change this statistic. With the work from her thesis, Schmerber hopes to gather the perspectives of key stakeholders in the autism community, as well as individuals with autism themselves, regarding what can be done to reverse the unemployment rate for adults with autism. She hopes to have her thesis published so her research can be widely circulated and made known.

“Of the entire population of people with disabilities, those with autism are the least likely to be employed as adults. Moreover, in the entire general population at large, people with autism are still the least likely to be employed as adults, which makes the autism community the number one population worldwide to be unemployed,” she said. 

Schmerber adds unemployment is not the only issue for adults with autism: “Adults with autism are also repeatedly malemployed (working in an environment that does not suit their needs) or underemployed (working minimal hours or volunteering). Therefore, the quality of life is poor for many people with autism.  As a woman with autism, I plan to change the trajectory of this statistic.”