Cooking your own food. Growing your own food. These basic principles of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution are extremely appealing and not only because being “streetsmart about food” is key for our health and for the planet. Many aspects of Oliver’s campaign for food education can have a huge impact on the lives and maybe even the livelihoods of kids with disabilities.
Well-meaning parents can end up giving a child a lot of junk food or sugary treats, out of a wish to provide a child who may not have many interests with something pleasurable, but teaching kids with disabilities to eat healthfully from the start is vital. Almost one-third of kids in the U.S. are overweight and things are even worse for those with disabilities. A report released in December 2011 by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration found that more than 36 percent of children ages 10 to 17 with disabilities are overweight or obese as compared to about 30 percent of other children. Moreover, the more severe a child’s disability, the more he or she struggles with weight.
Youth With Disabilities: Few Options After Finishing School
My son Charlie, who’s on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, turned 15 on Tuesday. For the first several years of his life, my husband Jim’s and my focus was to provide Charlie with the best education possible. He is now settled in a school (a large county autism center in north-central New Jersey) where he is happy, with most of his days dedicated to teaching him skills — of daily living, for a job – for the long future ahead of him. But his prospects, and those of autistic youth, for employment and education post-graduation are bleak.
A just-published study in the journal Pediatrics offers some completely depressing news for life after school for young adults on the autism spectrum. Researchers found that, in the first six years after graduating from high school, 34.7% of autistic youths had attended college and just over half — 55.1% — had paid employment. In the two years following high school, more than half were neither employed nor in school.
Parents whose children are older than Charlie have told us things are very different after an adult child finishes school. Children with disabilities are “entitled” to services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But as an adult with disabilities, Charlie will instead be “eligible” for services which may or may not be available for him.
Farming, Cooking and Work For Youth With Disabilities
Jim and I need to be practical and we are doing what we can to prepare Charlie for what will be a huge transition. In the midst of being extremely pragmatic and realistic, I still like to think big — to think creatively, to consider if there might be job options for Charlie that just have not been created yet.
For some on the autism spectrum, a job in the tech industry is a possibility; a small number of companies and nonprofits are debuting programs in which autistic workers test software. Charlie loves his iPad but his aptitude is not for computers and technology. He really loves the outdoors and being active. He also likes to eat and to watch people cooking and preparing food. I can see Charlie learning to garden and perhaps even work on a farm or even, in some capacity (and certainly with a job coach at his side) in a kitchen, inspired by the suggestions of Oliver’s Food Revolution. (Some such programs do exist.)
We’ve worked, over many years, to teach Charlie skills such as riding a bike, an activity that has fostered a love of being outside in him. As he grows into the next phrase of his life, time to launch the next phase, to find Charlie meaningful work and activities and help him and others with disabilities to lead a good life.
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