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Program gives autistic students confidence to join work force

| Monday, March 22, 2010

Shawn Curren hates when his hands are dirty.

When the students in his class at NHS Human Services Autism School in Whitney pass around cheese curls to eat, Curren, 16, of Greensburg immediately has to wash off the orange powder left on his fingers.

But when his boss at Adam and Eve Pet Station near Latrobe asks him to dig into a bag of hay and pull out handfuls to put in a rabbit cage, Curren obliges happily.

"Try to get it around the bowl here," pet store owner David Shultz tells Curren as he scoops up one last handful. "That's good!"

Curren's foray into the working world is part of NHS Human Services' transition program for autistic students who attend the organization's schools in Herminie and Unity.

It's an opportunity for autistic students at the two NHS schools in Westmoreland County to go out into the community, learn about different jobs and hone their skills so they're ready to work when they graduate from high school at age 21.

"If we don't start early, we're really setting them up for failure when they turn 21," said Sharon Greene, senior director of the schools.

With the unemployment rate for autistic adults as high as 80 percent and with one in 110 American children being diagnosed with the developmental disorder, the need to better prepare the students for adulthood takes on urgent importance, said Dr. Cathy Pratt, board chairwoman of the Autism Society of America.

"As the numbers increase, if these individuals are graduating into unemployment that means there will be a greater stress put on our economy and our social services," Pratt said. "We spend a lot of resources on early intervention and on educational programs and individuals are going to spend more of their years as adults than as children."

The schools began strengthening their transition services for students ages 14 and older last fall.

At the beginning of the school year, NHS opened laboratory work sites at both schools where kids could learn vocational skills, including office work, food preparation and horticulture.

They've put together pizza boxes and have done collating for offices in preparation for the real world.

About a month ago, students about age 16 began going out into local businesses to put what they learned in school to the test.

Tiffany Baer, an NHS intern, called businesses throughout the county to find places willing to give the students a chance. Some businesses were reluctant, Baer said, because they don't understand autism.

But those business operators who stepped forward have embraced the program.

"They work so well with the kids, and they're so willing to give us a chance," Baer said.

At Adam and Eve, students clean animal cages, feed fish and do other tasks to prepare Shultz for his business day.

"They come in on time, and they pick it up really well," Shultz said.

Curren said cleaning the cages is his favorite part of working at Adam and Eve.

"I want to have a job at the Pittsburgh Zoo to take care of the animals," Curren said.

The students get an opportunity to learn about a variety of jobs. NHS students have been going to Unique Pizza in Unity, Allante Hair Designs and Spa in Greensburg, and New Haven Court nursing home and Align Chiropractic, both in Hempfield, for their job experiences.

Students go to a site once a week and they rotate among businesses for variety, Greene said.

On a recent day, chiropractor Leah Samuels had some students placing Align Chiropractic labels on water bottles she is donating to a charity walk while another student cleaned the office.

She thinks she'll have the students do some office work, such as filing.

"As I learn their skills better, we'll try to find things that will make their skills grow," Samuels said.

Cassie Maywood, 15, found her skill set, cleaning the chiropractor's office.

She wiped down exam tables, dusted window blinds and vacuumed the floors. While she liked cleaning and did so with gusto, Maywood said her favorite job experience has been at the pet store working with the mice and birds.

Greene said NHS is preparing to open a new center in Greensburg in the fall where the transition program will be housed. Students will go there to develop portfolios, undergo evaluations and work on job skills.

"We can help them figure out what is it they want. Is it possible they are going to go onto education after they graduate• Are they going to need supported employment• Are they going to be able to do independent employment?" Greene said.

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