Thursday, October 16, 2014
Determined to confront high unemployment rates among adults on the autism spectrum, Mercyhurst University has developed a Career Path Program to help make students in its Autism/Asperger Initiative (AIM) more employable upon graduation.
Initial funding for the new career track came from Philadelphia area residents Mark Stookey and Lisa Chismire, whose son, Andrew, 22, is a sophomore in the AIM program.
The couple has promised a quarter-million dollar gift to launch the program. Of the total, $200,000 will become seed money for an endowment to fund the program in perpetuity. The other $50,000 will assist with operating expenses as the Career Path Program is rolled out over the next three years.
Stookey, who enrolled his son at Mercyhurst after exhaustively researching options available nationwide, says he believes Mercyhurst is well-positioned to help young adults on the spectrum achieve their vocational goals – and to serve as a model for other college autism programs.
“These students are very bright. I am sure that with the right preparation, they can be very successful in the workplace, which will benefit them as individuals, their employers and our society as a whole,” he said.
AIM Director Brad McGarry points out that unemployment rates for adults with autism spectrum disorders are near 85%. “It’s not enough to prepare these students academically for the world of work. We have to make sure they’re employable after graduation,” he said.
Students in AIM often demonstrate superior intellectual abilities, but face challenges in social interaction and in executive functioning that can interfere with job success. The career and workplace training curriculum will help students mitigate those problems to successfully transition into the work world.
Students will begin preparing for post-college careers from their first term on campus, completing individualized modules to build the social skills they’ll need to find and hold jobs. They’ll use specialized software to assess their own skills and interests, and then begin exploring potential careers.
They’ll gradually be introduced to the workplace, first by shadowing workers in their chosen field, then by working in paid Career Path Experience jobs on the Mercyhurst campus, and eventually by interning off-campus. AIM plans to build a network of local businesses and alumni interested in working with its students, and will help students tap into national resources as well.
In addition to extensive preparation, students can be assigned a job coach to help them navigate jobs and internships.
Mercyhurst introduced its Learning Differences Program in 1986. It was the first of its kind in Pennsylvania and one of only a handful of programs across the country at that time. In 2008, the Learning Differences Program developed AIM to serve the growing population of students on the autism spectrum who are entering college.
AIM provides a supported living environment; individualized social skills training; a peer mentor program; social activities; and academic monitoring and accommodations. AIM also offers a summer Foundations program to help young adults on the spectrum (high school seniors or older) determine whether they’re ready to succeed in college.
To learn more about the AIM program, visit mercyhurst.edu/aim or contact McGarry at 814-824-2451 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To contribute to the Career Path Program Endowment, contact Ryan Palm, associate vice president for advancement, at 814-824-3320 or email@example.com.
PHOTO: From left: Ryan Palm, associate vice president for advancement; President Tom Gamble; Mark Stookey and son Andrew; and Brad McGarry, director of AIM.