Autism: in the schools and workplace Local opportunities promise bright futureJan 03, 2022 02:40PM ● By Jet Burnham
Students in Spectrum Academy’s Culinary Arts Pathway prepare and serve Thanksgiving dinner for school staff. (Photo courtesy of Christina Guevara.)
Temple Grandin, perhaps the most famous person with autism, visited Utah in August and was impressed with the opportunities she saw for children and adults with autism.
“I've seen more good stuff yesterday and today than I've seen in a long time— you're doing some stuff that’s really special,” she said after visiting the Utah STEM Action Center and seeing the creative design and building tools available to Utah students in the STEM Lab.
Grandin believes hands-on learning is ideal for encouraging innovation—especially for kids with autism.
“I watched an autistic kid just blossom in there,” she said. “[He was] about 12 years old, acting really autistic. He started doing a 3D printer, he turned into a different kid.”
Grandin worries that many children get stuck in the “autism box” and that many capable autistic young people are wasting away their time, playing video games in their parents’ basement, when they should be in the workforce innovating, designing and building.
She said many visual thinkers could be successful engineers but they struggle to complete traditional engineering programs because of the math requirements.
“I get worried that my kind of visual thinker is getting strained out because we can't do algebra,” she said. “But it's my kind of visual thinker that will build the next Amazon warehouse.”
Grandin has written 13 books explaining the different ways autistic, or neurodiverse, minds process information. As an object visualizing thinker, Grandin transformed the meat processing industry with her revolutionary engineering designs. But she had to go through untraditional channels because of her autism.
Grandin will explore the different ways people think to come up with innovative ideas in a podcast, “How Do You Think of That with Temple Grandin,” which will launch early this year in partnership with the Utah STEM Action Center and Sheri Quinn Productions.
“Temple is interviewing a variety of people working on research projects and innovations, talking to them about their lives, the way they think, and the way that they incorporate STEM into their lives on a daily basis,” said Julienne Bailey, a program coordinator at the Utah STEM Action Center.
The podcast will also delve into the role of education and what teachers and counselors can do to drive innovation.
Grandin has strong opinions about the education of children with autism. In addition to hands-on classes such as shop classes, she said children with autism need life skills training.
“The big thing we've got to be doing with kids in the pipeline is learning life skills, learning work skills—not enough emphasis on that,” Grandin said.
Life skills training is what has made a difference for Amy Baker’s two sons with autism. The boys struggled in mainstream classes with neurotypical peers because of their delays in social and verbal skill development, which are typical with autism.
The boys attended specialized schools, the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning and Spectrum Academy Charter School. Spectrum Academy’s teachers use research-based instruction methods and provide a variety of technological tools so that students are not held back by writing, reading, or verbal delays, Baker said. Their on-staff occupational, speech, behavior, and mental specialists worked with the teaching team to help Baker’s boys figure out what modifications they needed to succeed in the classroom.
In Spectrum Academy’s social skills classes, Baker’s sons learned and practiced how to respond in social situations, something that comes naturally to neurotypical students but not those whose brains are wired differently.
By the end of middle school, both of Baker’s sons were able to transfer to their neighborhood school in mainstream classes. They are now in their junior and senior years.
“They're doing so well,” Baker said. “But they wouldn't be where they are without being at Spectrum to learn those tools. Those life skills that they've learned at Spectrum have just changed every aspect of our lives. Socially, they are keeping right up with their peers, which is huge. They need social skills to be able to get along in the world.”
Jordan School District provides autism support classes at three elementary schools, four middle schools and one high school. The smaller class sizes and Individualized Education Plans help teams of teachers, paraprofessionals and therapists address each student’s academic needs, social skills development and behavior, said Angela Johnston, a special education teacher in one of Rose Creek Elementary’s three autism support classrooms.
In the autism support classrooms, students learn appropriate replacement behaviors to reduce disruptions to learning. Things that are small annoyances to neurotypical children can trigger a sensory overload tantrum in an autistic or neurodiverse child. When they become overwhelmed, they may respond with stimming behaviors (rocking, pacing, flapping, biting, yelling.) In the autism support classrooms, students learn to prevent and replace those behaviors.
“Our goal is for them to realize they're starting to get overwhelmed and they come to us and ask us for a break, or say ‘I need to go for a walk’ or ‘I need to go get a drink of water’ or ‘Can I go to the sensory room?’ or ‘It's loud in here, I need some headphones,’” Johnston said. “Our goal is to get them to a place where they can use those strategies independently.”
Last year, Rose Creek Elementary created a Sensory Room, a former storage closet with low lighting, stocked with fidget toys, play-doh, pillows and a swing.
“It's been a great place for kids to go just to get out of the classroom if they feel like they're starting to escalate or they're overwhelmed, if it's too loud, or they're feeling off that day and they need to just be somewhere quiet,” Johnston said.
Once students learn to prevent and replace behaviors, they are able to participate in mainstream classrooms, which is the goal of the program, said Johnston.
“We teach them appropriate replacement behaviors so they can be in a school setting and get to the point where we can have them mainstream, or their parents can take them out into the community,” she said.
In her 20 year career, Johnston has seen an improved educational experience for autistic students due to research and innovations as well as more parents advocating for their children, and more schools providing specialized services. Utah’s private and charter schools for autistic students are in high demand; Spectrum Academy, which has grown from one campus to seven in the last 15 years, continues to have a long enrollment waiting list.
Job skills training is part of secondary school instruction for teenagers with autism. Both Spectrum Academy and Jordan District schools begin transition planning in seventh grade. Throughout their middle and high school years, students explore career opportunities and learn job skills through school-based and community-partnership work experiences.
Special education students in grades 9-12 can participate in part-time vocational instruction at JSD’s South Valley School in West Jordan, which also provides post high school life skills and job skills training for special education students ages 18-21.
Some students learn and practice job skills while working in South Valley School’s greenhouse and woodworking, framing and engraving shops. Others fill jobs in the community. SVS Principal Rita Bouillon said students with autism have abilities that fill a need in the job force and community employers are thrilled to have such dedicated workers.
“These students have such great skills because they pay such attention to detail, they like doing repetitive work, and they like doing work accurately,” Bouillon said. Many prefer jobs that are predictably the same every day such as gathering grocery carts, stocking shelves, making pizzas, and working on assembly lines.
Bouillon said these first job experiences help young adults with autism learn basic job skills—how to be on time, follow directions, dress appropriately, use public transportation and budget—that will translate to any future career. In class, students role play how to ask for a raise, request a day off, and arrange an accommodation. They learn to advocate for themselves and to educate others about autism so that it is not a barrier.
Autism is misunderstood by many and often causes a frustrating cycle of unemployment and underemployment.
“The autism community suffers from an 85% underemployment rate,” said David Aspinall, CEO of U.S. operations of Auticon, an international IT service provider. “Underemployment is the notion that somebody who could be an expert technologist is working in a role that doesn't make them the compensation that they deserve for their skills. The other version of underemployment is an individual, an incredibly skilled technologist, that has gone from organization to organization, never growing roots, never feeling fulfilled, because they're not an autism-friendly environment.”
That was the experience of Scott McKell, a 30-something computer programmer from Hyrum, Utah. He said he felt he escaped the stigmatizing ‘box of autism’ because his mother opted to keep him out of the special education system. She did push his social skills development and he was able to do well in school. But post high school, he struggled to find stable work that paid well. He was a skilled musician and computer programmer but found himself working temporary jobs in warehouses and call centers.
There were always problems with the jobs—call centers were uncomfortably loud, and if there was a big crash in the warehouse, it affected his ability to work accurately.
“I've had lots of odd jobs because I hadn't quite found something that fit or I didn't realize how to ask for accommodations to make something that was a close fit a solid fit,” McKell said.
Finally, in 2020, he found Auticon, which employs adults on the autism spectrum as technology consultants.
Auticon has tapped into the autistic pool of employees to utilize their skill sets that are ideal in the software development and data science industries. Aspinall said one autistic cognitive strength is brutal honesty, which is an asset in data science. He said an autistic worker is dedicated to the data and provides unbiased results, while other people may have an interpretation bias based on what they want the data to show.
Aspinall said people with autism who have the hard skills for a job often don’t make it through the social skills portion of a job interview.
“The traditional interview process is one of the reasons our community is 85% underemployed,” Aspinall said. “There’s human bias, where you're in an interview and you get that social spark with someone. That has zero bearing on that individual's ability to do the job, especially in data science and software engineering.”
Auticon uses an autism-friendly recruitment process—gamification to understand the applicant’s technical skills, and a series of chats with job coaches to understand their soft skills. They provide job coaches to help employers understand how to support neurodiversity in the workplace so that they are inclusive and integrated. Many of the accommodations autistic workers ask for are just good business practices, Aspinall said.
“Things we work with our partners on are things like written instruction instead of verbal instruction, making sure that meetings have an agenda, that communication is concise,” he said. “If you think about it, that is really not that much of an accommodation, that's just good business practice.”
Grandin attended the ribbon-cutting for Auticon’s Salt Lake operations center when she was in Utah in August and praised the company for recognizing the skills and capabilities of employees with autism. The majority of Auticon’s employees are autistic but Aspinall is quick to dismiss it as anything but good business strategy.
“This notion that this is altruistic is not accurate,” he said. “It’s performance-based. This isn't altruism. Our team is bringing them a performance advantage. They are using what has been considered a barrier as a strength.”
McKell was hired by Auticon as a consultant for Fidelity Investments and said the workplace environment is the best he’s ever had because his employer understands what he needs to do his job; it is normalized for him to wear noise-cancelling headphones or to take a break.
“It's unlike anything I've ever had before—in a positive way,” he said. “Just the mere understanding that if I get overstimulated and I need to take a break and walk away, they're not only OK with that but they encourage that. If I'm too uncomfortable or bothered by something, I disengage and find my zen, so to speak, and then come back and I'm much more efficient than when I was overstimulated and trying to push through.”
Autism takes front stage
The workings of an autistic mind is front stage in Riverton High School’s upcoming production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” The protagonist of the Tony Award-winning play is an teenager with autism who is determined to solve a mystery.
“It's from his perspective, so we are seeing life through his extraordinary brain and how he's able to maneuver things and do things that seem impossible for him,” RHS theater teacher Erin McGuire said.
One of the cast members is autistic and McGuire is planning a sensory-friendly performance for autistic audience members. The play runs February 24-28. Visit rivertonhigh.jordandistrict.org for information and tickets.