CLEVELAND – Nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held paid employment, according to autism speaks.
But research shows that jobs that encourage independence can help reduce autism symptoms.
A program at Cleveland Clinic works to prepare students with autism for the job market.
Five days a week, Jack Cummings is at work.
“I need help,” he told his coach.
The 15-year-old loves going to work at the Cleveland Clinic and his job coach is there every step of the way.
His main duties are to pick up and deliver mail and research materials to doctors at the Heart Institute.
“He did phenomenal things. He loves it,” Courtney Gebura said.
She is the Lerner School for the Autism Transition Coordinator.
He navigates the large main campus to make sure the right person gets the right mail. He also does some office work.
“I think Jack really benefits from this routine and knowing that he’s doing something that means something to him and it’s good for the department he works for,” Gebura said.
He began the unpaid internship in September as part of the professional training program at the Lerner School for Autism.
“He has to communicate. He has to work on those soft skills of saying sorry if he passes someone, navigating an elevator,” Gebura said. “He’s definitely made leaps and bounds and I know his parents are really proud of his progress.”
Jack has been dating Lerner since he was a nonverbal four-year-old.
“When he arrived I know he had language issues and also eating, behavioral issues. So those are things that, you know, watch Jack progress over the years and as he gets older and becomes that young adult,” Gebura said.
The training provides hands-on work experience for students with autism.
There are approximately 20 students, including Jack, in the program currently working at nine different community employment sites, both on and off the Cleveland Clinic campus.
“It’s more or less about giving students this authentic experience of what it’s like to be on the job, the responsibilities,” Gebura said.
Gebura said the program has grown a lot since its launch 16 years ago.
In some cases, business partners hire students after the internship.
“It’s so important for our students to be in work and learn these skills so they can keep them and then either get a job after graduation or generalize those skills to a different environment,” said Gebura.
It helps teens and young adults identify their career goals and interests while developing their skills so they can be ready to join the workforce after graduation.
“To give them, again, that purpose and to be able to have a structure and a place where they feel like they belong,” Gebura said.
Cleveland Clinic officials said that after school, about 50% of young adults with autism don’t work for pay, and those who do tend to work in low-wage, part-time jobs.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, work experience has been shown to be the most important predictor of career success after high school for students with disabilities and that is what this program aims to provide.
“It’s so important for families to know their child’s abilities and know that they are capable,” she said.