As published in Exceptional Parent magazine [View pdf of print article here].
Many parents of children with autism and other developmental disabilities are concerned about what will happen when their sons and daughters enter adulthood. Will they be able to live on their own? Find meaningful work? Build a happy and productive adult life?
Jo-Ann and Eric Branzetti, who live on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, have been asking themselves these questions since 1993 when their son Matthew was diagnosed with autism, three months before his third birthday.
“A lot of your natural expectations for your child go out the window when you get that diagnosis,” says Jo-Ann. “Every expert we talked to had a different opinion and that was disheartening. One told us that Matthew would never be able to live on his own. Of course I was upset that life was going to be very hard for him, and scared about what would happen to him when we’re gone.”
At the time of Matthew’s diagnosis, Jo-Ann and Eric didn’t know much about autism, the services available for children on the spectrum, or what the future might hold for their son. Since then, they have learned a lot through personal experience and because Jo-Ann worked as an intake coordinator for an organization that provided services for children with autism and other special needs.
Like the children served by Jo-Ann’s company, Matthew received early intervention and home-based services. When he was old enough, he went to public school for a few years, but made little progress. Matthew was 8 when he started attending a May Institute school on Cape Cod. At the school, he actively participated in an individualized, structured program focused on helping him improve his communication and social skills.
In 2008, Matthew moved to a May Institute school in Randolph, Mass. As the once easy-going little boy entered his teenage years, he started exhibiting some challenging behaviors. The Branzettis worked to put interventions in place at home that mirrored the interventions his teachers were implementing at school. And, with the help of a small amount of medication, Matthew’s behavior improved.
The move was a good one for Matthew. He was ready for the school’s intensive vocational track for older students. Programs like this one combine individualized academic instruction with specialized skills-building. This ensures that adolescents with developmental disabilities will be able to experience as much independence and fulfillment in their adult lives as possible.
Families and educators usually begin working with children at age 14 to prepare them for their eventual transition to adult life.
“We work with teachers and parents to develop specific vocational goals for each student,” explains Scott Chasse, M.Ed., the school’s Director of Vocational Services. “We find out from their parents what kinds of chores they do at home and what strengths they see in their children. We take their age, challenges, and skills into consideration before developing their vocational training program.”
When students turn 15, school staff assess their progress to determine if they may be able to do volunteer or paid work on campus. With the help of a job coach, many students are employed by the school to do jobs such as recycling, delivering mail, or working in the cafeteria.
Matthew attends the school’s Todd Fournier Center for Employment Training and Community Inclusion. The Center’s mission is to prepare young people with special needs to transition from a school environment into the outside world – something they all must do by age 22, when they “graduate” from the federally mandated educational services system.
Developing and practicing new skills in the Center’s life skills suites helps students like Matthew reinforce their work ethic and gain additional work experience. It is important for young people to learn and practice job and life skills in safe, controlled environments that look and function like actual work and community settings.
When an aspiring student worker is ready to work in the community, he or she is placed in the most appropriate job available through the school’s employee/employer match program. Employers looking to fill entry-level jobs in the retail, restaurant, or hospitality industries appreciate being able to hire individuals who have had an opportunity to practice required skills.
Matthew has had a variety of jobs at the school, including his present job of putting together orientation packets for new employees. At home, he gained work experience by baking and delivering cupcakes with his mother for their home-based cupcake business.]
Always a boy who loved to be active, Matthew blossomed and became more confident as he took on more responsibility. “Matt is a very fast learner,” says Ana Maria Chiappee, BCaBA, his vocational coordinator at the school. “He really liked academics and feeling like an excellent student, but he also liked to be up and about. He loved doing the retail stocking, pricing, and organization that we practice in our program. He really rose to the occasion and we were able to match him with a paying job in the community.”
When Matthew was 18 he started working at BJ’s Wholesale Club – with the help of a job coach – cleaning display cases. Today, Matthew works about seven hours a week in the community, not only at BJ’s, but also at a convenience store/gasoline station owned by VERC Enterprises. At this new job he keeps things clean, inside and out. In addition, he continues to work three-to-five hours a week for the Center.
For young people with special needs, community integration is vitally important. Inclusion in the community is one of the best ways for them to learn new skills, become independent, form meaningful relationships, and lead happy, fulfilling lives.
“But it’s important to remember that community integration is not just about paid employment,” says Scott. “It can also be accomplished by helping these young men and women find volunteer work and/or participate in organized community activities.”
Scott is often out in the community, building relationships and developing an employers’ network of business establishments willing to provide jobs for vocational students. To date, the Center’s employers’ network includes Arbella Insurance Group, Papa Gino’s, and the Massachusetts South Shore YMCA, in addition to BJ’s Wholesale Club and VERC Enterprises.
It is a program that is working well for students like Matthew who are able to obtain paying jobs in the community. When these young men and women first start their new jobs, they are accompanied by a job coach who will assist them. Over time, the students become more and more independent.
“I want my job coaches to work themselves out of a job,” says Scott. “If the coach is successful, there’s going to come a time when the student doesn’t need him or her.”
Why should businesses extend themselves to hire individuals with special needs? According to Scott, there is an untapped population of individuals with disabilities who can fill positions that some employers have difficulty filling. And there is a federal tax credit for businesses that employ adults with special needs. “Most importantly,” he adds, “it’s the right thing to do, and it creates goodwill in the community.”
Jo-Ann and Eric, who now own an ice cream store on Cape Cod, agree. They opened their family business with Matthew in mind. “There is a lot of cleaning and restocking that needs to be done. These are jobs Matthew has done at the school. He could transfer these skills to the family business. But long-term, I was thinking this is somewhere that other people with disabilities – not just Matthew – may be able to work.”
When Matthew turns 22 next spring, he will graduate. “I’m very scared about him turning 22,” says Jo-Ann, “but I think his work ethic and work experience will really help him transition. I don’t expect Matt to work 40 hours a week, but if he can have that balance of maybe a day program and a job, I think it’s going to make him happy. And I think it’s going to allow him to contribute to society, which is really what every person wants to do.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011), only 17.8 percent of people with disabilities are employed. And young adults with autism are three to four times less likely to be employed than young adults with other disabilities.
One factor that contributes to a low employment rate among people with disabilities is a lack of access to job training.
Studies show that students with special needs who hold community jobs during their school years are more likely to be independent and continue to work in the community after they have transitioned into adult services. Good vocational programs focus on helping students develop essential work and life skills, with the overall goal of enabling them to obtain volunteer and paid positions and achieve as much independence as possible.
Joshua, a graduate of the Todd Fournier Center for Employment Training and Community Inclusion, worked two days a week at Arbella Insurance Group in Randolph, Mass., doing data entry and filing this past year. [Read story here.]
By Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA
Just because an individual turns 22 and “ages out” of the federally mandated educational services system, does not mean that his or her opportunities for learning new skills have come to an end. [Read story here.]