When the parent of a normal child asks, “So what do you want to be when you grow up,” the younger child answers, “A fireman.” “A princess.” “An NFL football player.” The older child? “A social worker.” “A singer.” “A chef.” Or, the ultimate, “Lawyer?” “Doctor?” “I want to own a big company?”
It’s clear. It’s doable. And, it’s mostly realistic. Normal children never say, “I want to work in a sheltered workshop.” It’s not in their realm of choices. However, with special needs children who are as impaired as my son, when employment in typical public workplaces is not a possibility, workshops offer the only viable employment opportunity. The options are as limited as the twenty-one year old adult’s disabilities. Greg cannot work independently in public. He “elopes” which means he goes on the run at times, maybe to flush toilets or visit the office workers at his company, CIT, Center for Industrial Training. He also sings loudly, a distraction for sure. When he is in an obstinate mood, he can even have bouts of screaming, refusing to work until the cause of his screams is identified and corrected.
My sister handed me a Glamour magazine article on Easter Sunday in which a lovely woman, Jacquelyn Jablonski, sister of a 19-year-old with autism, gets into her brother’s space and demands that he notice her. She perseveres mightily on his behalf, even hoping to set up a foundation or create a farm for special adults so they can feel productive. In this same article, she pointed out this statistic: Only 10% of autistic people are employed in the United States.
I was horrified.
My next wake-up call came when I watched Dateline. (Sunday, April 12) The show followed two families with grown-up autistic young adults, families who floundered once their sons reached age 21 at which age they were forced by law to leave school. In both cases, the young men regressed in essential skills, growing depressed while their mothers worked their magic to find services for their sons, at great expense and effort. The demands took an emotional toll on both families. They have since found remedies for some of their concerns, but not until after they’d nearly lost all hope. Remembering what we went through to find employment for our son, Greg, I realized that we could be one of those families had we not had several factors working in our favor.
First, our school district, Central Dauphin in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had an excellent job training program. Greg’s inclusive education in elementary school prepared him for basic skills of reading, writing and math, allowed him to develop his personality and talents with children who accepted him and, most of all, showed him that he could accomplish anything he put his mind to. Despite his significant disability in communication, he had certain traits that might make him employable someday including a desire to see a job through to completion, and Central Dauphin’s teachers worked together to achieve that goal for us. We’d never envisioned the day when Greg might have to attend adult day care. Greg would work for a living. When Greg was in high school, the school district’s jobs coordinator lined up various trial job opportunities for Greg: housekeeping, laundry detail, a pizza factory, a bakery, a food bank, and others. Reliable aides supervised him, teaching him various skills that required both sequential abilities and the ability to follow directions without too many prompts. The aides relied on written prompts, schedules and any other supports Greg needed to insure his productivity. In Greg’s unique way, he showed us which jobs he loved and which he despised. It came as no surprise to us that he hated housework. He loved working our washing machine at home but did not enjoy folding laundry. The bakery? He was nearly independent there. However, as all good smells must come to an end, the bakery changed the way they would load their skids and Greg lost an employment opportunity. His final placement was at a sheltered workshop across the river, Wilson S. Pollack Center for Industrial Training. Greg boxed and labeled products, he placed small change in wrappers, and more. He thrived there. However, he remained prompt dependent, and we were told that he would have to become more independent to work there after graduation.
Second, we were not “stuck” as the Dateline families were with the closing of school doors when Greg reached age 21 in October. Central Dauphin consented to educate Greg until the end of his final school year, a service that was invaluable to us since Greg needed more speech therapy, fluency training (see previous blog), on-the-job skills training and other services that were available only through the school. The school district literally paved the way to Greg’s success by funding Greg’s education throughout most of his twenty-first year. Greg’s progress at his job site during his last year was noteworthy; nevertheless there were bugs to iron out.
The call that made my husband and me panic came in the spring of Greg’s final school year. CIT’s supervisor informed us that Greg would have to pass an evaluation to have a job placement with them. “What evaluation?” I asked her. Apparently it was not a given that Greg would be offered employment at a sheltered workshop. I missed that memo. The supervisor further explained that there were several factors that could prevent Greg from future employment in this company. For one? He needed to listen to music while working. It soothed him, shut out extraneous noises and kept him moving through a task. Next? He needed gum to keep from singing or screeching. Gum was forbidden by the participating companies. Finally? Greg was extremely prompt-dependent. Any one or all of these could end Greg’s chances for employment. I prayed. Jay prayed. Greg’s teachers expressed their hope to us to keep us afloat during this stressful time.
The final factor working in our favor? We were able to procure the necessary funding to continue Greg’s services after graduation. Sheltered workshops are not free. The government keeps them afloat with essential funding. In our case, Home & Community Services Waiver funding supported Greg with his education and work program after graduation. Music therapy and after-school support ended at age 21, but we continued these at home with our daytime aide, James, a law school student who was a Jack of all trades: tutor, speech therapist, supports coordinator, friend and social organizer.
We, or better said, Greg, achieved the nearly impossible goal of attaining employment. No, change that. A school district and its job trainers, the government, the workers & supervisors at CIT, the plethora of aides who helped us after school hours and James helped Greg achieved our goal of productive. He passed his evaluation. He is one of the lucky 10%. Greg feels the joy of completing a job successfully. We can tell. After a week of work, we ask him, “Greg, how was work this week?” His answer? “Good.” Life doesn’t get any better.
Greg receives job training while on the job.