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Documentary highlights AIM students on career track

Friday, September 29, 2017

AIM Director Brad McGarry

When 11 students from AIM (the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst) head to New York City over fall break, they’ll have more on their minds than sightseeing. The trip is designed to increase their chances for employment after graduation, and a film crew will be recording their activities for use in a documentary slated to hit Netflix in winter 2018.

The students have a packed agenda in the Big Apple, including visits with major companies that have committed to hiring students on the autism spectrum (Ernst & Young, Google, Hersha Hospitality Managers) as well as meetings with key autism advocacy organizations (Autism Speaks and the United Nations’ World Autism Day director).

The travelers are upperclassmen whose majors range from hospitality management to geology to special education. They will be meeting with executives and human resources and diversity personnel, taking part in mock interviews and roundtables, and touring company facilities – all while helping the employers understand their experience of life on the spectrum.

A grant from the A.J. and Sigismunda Palumbo Charitable Trust is funding the trip, but it’s Mercyhurst’s extensive network in the autism employment community that opened doors to these high-level opportunities.

AIM Director Brad McGarry, who will accompany the students, says Mercyhurst is “in the inner circle” when autism employment is discussed. “We feel we know all the major players, and they know us,” he adds.

AIM, founded in 2008 to meet the unique needs of college students on the autism spectrum, launched a Career Path Program in 2014. From their first semester on campus, AIM students are actively preparing for employment through vocational skill development, job shadowing, internships and paid employment.

McGarry says unemployment rates for adults on the autism spectrum hover around 85 percent. “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 adds.

He reports 62 percent employment for AIM graduates to date, but his goal is to completely flip that unemployment statistic – ensuring that 85 percent of adults on the spectrum find meaningful, sustainable employment.

The road trips have proved a useful tool to pursue that goal. AIM sponsors one trip annually to New York and another to Washington, D.C. Several former students have accepted jobs with companies they’ve visited on past trips, including Booz Allen, J.P. Morgan and Key Bank, while others have received job offers from firms like Microsoft and SAP.

But job offers aren’t the only – or even the most important – benefit for students who make the trips. McGarry says the trips open whole new horizons for his students. “They realize that there is a world outside Erie, and that they can function well in it,” he says. “Once they’ve interacted with top executives at these major corporations, they gain confidence that carries over into interviews with hometown companies.”

McGarry is regularly invited to attend, and present at, conferences on autism employment. It was during a recent meeting on the subject in San Francisco that he met the producers of an upcoming documentary titled “This Business of Autism.” The film focuses on the economic and societal benefits of employing young adults with autism.

Already familiar with Mercyhurst and AIM, Stephen Mackey of Mesh Omnimedia asked whether his crew could record the students’ journey, from getting ready at their hotel to navigating the big city (with its sometimes overwhelming sensory stimulation) to meeting with executives.

The Mesh crew plans to do additional filming on the Mercyhurst campus before the students depart for New York, and will head to Colorado after the New York segment to film Temple Grandin. Their documentary is expected to be released on Netflix in winter 2018.

Visit mercyhurst.edu/aim to learn more about the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst.