Teaching Today’s Autistic Students to be Tomorrow’s Workers
A week ago, I met with my son Charlie’s teachers, therapists, behaviorist and case manager for a meeting to discuss his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the document that details the services, teaching methodologies, and educational plans for a child with disabilities. As Charlie will be 14 years old in May, this meeting was also a transition meeting, where we started to talk about what will happen for Charlie when school ends for him: Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Charlie is entitled to a ‘free and appropriate education’ until he is 21 years old.
Thinking about what will happen when the little yellow school bus stops coming can evoke a sense of fear and, I’ll be honest, terror, even in the parents who’ve endured being told ‘there’s not much you can hope for’ when their child was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2; slugging it out for years with school administrators to get an education that is ‘appropriate’; repeating the sound /m/ thousands of times over so your child will say it clearly, hanging onto your child when he’s in the middle of a severe ‘neurological storm and flailing with all his might at every hard surface in your car while it’s in motion.
I started blogging about Charlie almost six years ago, in June of 2005, with the sole intention of trying to let others know that, while life raising Charlie can be very difficult, it’s a good life and he deserves to have the best that we can provide him with. I didn’t expect I’d end up blogging about revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East: Blogging has been quite an education for me. In the course of writing online about autism, I’ve come into communication with many adults on the autism spectrum, and many parents of older children, and so, a couple of years ago I took a deep breath and started to think about what happens after Charlie turns 21?
Consequently, I was more than prepared when the case manager at the IEP meeting said to me, ‘Have you thought about what you want for Charlie after he turns 21?’ Yes, indeed, we have:
- We’d like him to have a job, preferably in a community setting with a job coach. But if a sheltered workshop is deemed a more appropriate placement, that will be all right: The main goal is that Charlie has some job (preferably full-time, but part-time is certainly all right too.)
- We plan for Charlie to live in some sort of community housing or group home, perhaps in a shared apartment with 24/7 staff. But we are not on a timetable for this: If there is no housing that we think appropriate, and safe, for Charlie, he can live with us as long as necessary (while we do recognize, that can’t be for the duration of his life).
The February 20th Star Tribune notes that ‘autistic workers can help firms grow’:
Officials from 3M, Best Buy and Cargill gave the crowd countless examples of how employees “on the spectrum” had helped their companies. Buckner unveiled a pilot program at Cargill for autistic students in high school. Best Buy launched an e-learning website to help workers develop social skills and better read facial expressions and nonverbal language.
Charlie, after he is 21, would prefer to have a job. He likes to be busy. He is off from school today for President’s Day. Knowing that it was Monday, he got up early (before 5am) and, by 9am, we had gone for a walk around the neighborhood in the morning snow, shopped for groceries, did laundry, and made brownies. Charlie will have a similarly busy schedule when he moves up to the secondary school program at the county autism center he attends, as the students there switch activities as frequently as every half-hour. Charlie has already begun vocational training and seems to be showing a real knack, and an interest, in assembling thing, and not just mailings with flyers and papers: He’s working on putting sprinklers together.
Other students, as a recent New York Times article details, are learning invaluable job and social skills by running a café in their public school in Edison; I’ve heard of similar programs in which special ed students do everything from make coffee to handle the money elsewhere, in Maryland, for instance. Other programs exist in which students make and sell cookies and pasta; deliver flowers; wash cars.
Some of these programs are, like the café (which is for the middle school’s faculty), set in public schools. Such programs provide autistic students with the chance to interact with others, while students in a separate school like my son’s don’t have such chances. While we would like Charlie to have a job in the community someday, at the moment it has been best for him to be in a separate school to learn the skills he need, in an environment where everyone is trained to attend to his needs.
Charlie used to attend an in-district autism program, but behavior and sensory issues made such too difficult for him a few years ago. If he is able to get these under control, he will start ‘job sampling’ and go to visit different job sites with other students in a few years. It doesn’t usually get said in upbeat articles about job prospects for autistic children like the one in the New York Times, but ‘behavior problems’ are the gorilla in the room that means that some kids may have more limited options.
As it is, I don’t think Charlie might be at his best working something like a café or restaurant, though he might (if he can handle the noise) like working in a kitchen: He would make sure every last spoon was shiny and dried nice and clean. Just as he does not want to miss a day of school, Charlie would not want to miss a day of work and once he knows what he should do, he’s glad to do it. What more could you want in an employee?
Previous Care2 Coverage
Photo of students at the Gong-Gong Garden and Putt-Putt Golf Course Grand Opening by gkhorticulture. Go here to learn more about the students, who are members of the Grace King Horticulture Club; the students are on the autism spectrum and their 'vision is to make any place a better space.'