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Autistic students who enter the public school system are
well taken care of for the duration of their education, often encouraged and assisted to meet their goals. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) is a federal law that guarantees a free and appropriate public education for every person with a disability. Other federal laws mandate that children who are diagnosed with autism are ensured to have individualized education plans (IEPs) tailored to their specific needs. But what happens to these same students
once they leave the safe and secure world of public schooling?
According to Yudi Bennett, the Director of Operations at
Exceptional Minds, a non-profit vocational
center for young adults with autism located in Los Angeles, these students find
themselves in a hole they can not climb out of.
“There’s really nothing out there for them. It’s a very
unfortunate situation,” Bennett shares. “Once they are out of school, services
really fall apart. It is estimated right now that it is 90-95 percent unemployment
amongst this population.”
Bennett recognizes how dire this transition is for the
children who, until this point, believed the world had created a place for
them. These same students who were spoon-fed for the majority of their lives
soon realize that they are facing a new reality. Exceptional Minds was created
to remedy this issue by offering a vocational certification program for young
adults who are interested in animation, digital arts, visual effects and
computer animation. This program, which recently graduated its first class, streamlines
talented students into jobs in the entertainment industry.
23-year-old Kevin Titcher is the first graduate to
take full advantage of the program. Using the skills he developed at
Exceptional Minds, Titcher has accepted a position as a production assistant in
the editorial department at Stargate Studios in Los Angeles, which he says was
the happiest day of his life.
Dr. Chester Goad, the Director of Disability Services for Tennessee
Tech University applauds autistic students like Kevin who have overcome the
obstacle that most students on the autism spectrum face: the inability to become
self-sufficient. Those who seek higher education to help develop skills to
create income for themselves face yet another challenge specifically concerning
social interactions with others.
Kevin] are accustomed to a K-12 world and procedures, and so
the self-supporting, self-advocacy and self-determination aspects
can certainly be challenging. What students with high
functioning autism can find most challenging
though is social interaction with peers, and advocating for
themselves with professors, and being able to navigate college expectations
Dr. Goad says students with high functioning autism may not
grasp the social implications of their actions, causing some unrest as they
navigate social relationships with other students who do not understand the way
their brain works. In his work as a special abilities advocate for his
university, he has had to become the translator, for lack of a better term,
between high functioning autism students and those they interact with daily.
Most often, as with any difference, people respond uncomfortably or with fear until they understand the big picture.
Dr. Goad, who also runs a blog called The Edventurist,
which provides information for students with learning differences and the
teachers who are devoted to them, shares a few stories about students
with learning differences he helped to guide through the pressures of social
“I once had a student who was able to calculate what day of
the week someone was born easily,” Dr. Goad shares. “This student immensely
enjoyed asking people their birth dates and then telling them what day they were
born, or what day specific events had occurred. But the person being asked the
question by a stranger may not understand why a student, or individual they do
not know, is asking their birth date.”
On another occasion, Dr. Goad shares that an
engineering student was fascinated with cars and car safety. He had made it his
goal to ride in as many cars as he could as a part of his
personal survey or research process. This student was very social and
very, very likable, but he never hesitated to ask others if he could ride in
their car. Even after lengthy conversations regarding safety, collaboration, development of a plan for meeting new people and how to get to the point
that it was OK to ride in the car, by the end of his time at Tennessee
Tech, he had ridden in more than 400 cars, and he kept a log.
“We had many conversations with people who had been
fearful when approached by this very delightful young man,” Dr. Goad shares.
Dr. Goad also remembers a student whose coping mechanism was
pacing. One day he received a phone call from security asking if he knew
the student they described. After confirming who it was, the security
asked if he could make him stop pacing because he was making people nervous.
Dr. Goad politely explained he was doing nothing wrong and that there was no
law against pacing.
“Most often, as with any difference, people
respond uncomfortably or with fear until they understand the big picture,”
Dr. Goad says. “I think that is incredibly unfortunate and that is
why it's so important to educate people about autism, and why it is
equally important to help facilitate, inform and mentor appropriate
gainful employment and sustaining social relationships where all parties are
understood and respected is a basic desire for life that is often taken for
granted by individuals who do not have a learning or social impairment. This
issue, at least for people on the autism spectrum, can be transformed by
educating employers about the hidden benefits of working with people who are
sometimes deemed socially unacceptable.
firmly believes that employers who overlook adults with autism are overlooking
an opportunity to gain an outstanding team member.
often missing out on reliable, responsible, dedicated and knowledgeable
individuals because they may have some social challenges,” Dr. Goad
asserts. “Social challenges can be overcome or improved, and it just takes
some patience and time.”