In April, 2013 I wrote an article challenging SLPs who work with students with autism spectrum disorder to use our creativity to help our students identify their strengths, interests and even fixations and parlay them into career possibilities (“Gearing Up for Reality,” ASHA Leader Magazine April 2013).
As a result I decided to create a six-week pre-vocational summer camp counselor experience for eight high school aged male students, many of whom I hadn’t seen for several years. I wanted to offer them the same summer intern experience that typical students are exposed to minus the stresses and fear of failure. Staff and I wanted this to be a safe and nurturing environment with structures in place to help them navigate the world of work.
The criterion was quite simple; the students needed to commit to work in our summer camp at least three days per week and attend weekly job club meetings where I would address daily living, social, and pre-vocational skills. Additionally, each student would receive a stipend of $200.00 in exchange for their participation but more importantly to make our discussions on money management real and tangible. Our program would culminate in a trip to Clear Lake, Calif., for a weekend work experience.
Sadly, our six weeks have come and gone. I vividly remember how I felt on that first day seeing the boys. I stayed on the verge of tears as they each filed into my office with their parents in tow. Despite their height, good looks, and deep voices I could still see in each of them the little boys who I once knew. As I extended my hand to greet them, each gave me a warm hug. My heart melted!
It was interesting to watch the boys interact with each other on that first day. Some were more socially adept than others but they had all come a long way. In many ways, they were like typical teens sizing each other up and looking for a common ground while seeking acceptance.
During the first week I began to see their personalities unfold. We had an antagonist, a peacemaker, a social “dude,” a wanna-be grouch with a beautiful smile, a cool diplomat, an “honest Abe,” an easy rider, and the sleeper with a big heart who never ceased to amaze us. As different as they all were, the thread that bound them all was ASD. I was curious to see how they would adjust to working with the staff who were their bosses, the children who were the clients or consumers and the other assistants who were their colleagues.
During our first club meeting, as I laid out the employee rules, the antagonist challenged me on the “no cell phone” rule. He wanted to remind me that the phone could be used for more than talking or texting. After all, what if he wanted to check the time? I calmly repeated the rule and reminded him that this was a company policy and referred him to the clocks on the walls. This was nonnegotiable.
Meanwhile, “honest Abe” complained of total exhaustion and became stuck on how challenging the little children were. Interestingly, my sleeper who appeared to not be paying attention, when asked for an opinion said. “I was like that when I was four and couldn’t talk, but once I learned how, I didn’t cry as much.” Our diplomat closed it out and reminded everyone that they should “want” to help the kids in the same way “we” had helped all of them. My heart skipped a beat as I thought how amazing are my boys!
Staff and I marveled as we watched them grow and mature in just six short weeks. Several of them had worked with the boys in their early years. We remembered the “social dude” when he had a fixation with fans. He told us that he has turned his fixations into hobbies and then began to tell of his hobby. We also reminisced about the peacemaker who as a child was extremely shy. We watched in disbelief as he reprimanded the group and pleaded for them to allow the antagonist to finish his statement.
On July 19th we boarded our flight to Sacramento, drove two hours to Clear Lake and settled into an unbelievable weekend at the Full Circle Sheep Farm with sisters Eva and Marty who embraced us as if we were family.
Our workday started at 7 am on Saturday and we painted barns, tended the sheep and their lambs, and played with pets Blaze and Malcolm X . We then returned to our Travel Lodge to swim and relax before returning to the farm to paint drawings of sheep on the barns. The remainder of the evening was spent discussing TrayVon Martin and lessons we could learn from this and similar situations. Their concerns were valid and we collectively developed strategies to deal with the unexpected.
On Sunday morning we returned to say our goodbyes. The boys surprised all of us as they spontaneously spoke from their hearts about what the experience meant to them and even what they meant to each other. The social dude suggested they should all return not for a weekend but an entire week. The grouch flashed his beautiful smile and agreed unconditionally. Honest Abe said, “Lets do it again but somewhere that’s not so hot!” Our smooth diplomat said “We are like brothers and I love all of you.” The sleeper had the last word and said “ I feel so blessed. I want to bring my family here.” All of the adults fought to fight back our tears of joy.
On the flight home all I could think was “mission accomplished.” My pilot pre-vocational program was a success. The boys have committed to staying in touch and having quarterly activities. They have gotten a taste of the world of work and more importantly, they have learned the importance of giving back. We all agreed autism is a label and it doesn’t define how far we can go in life. The sky’s the limit. In the words of my sleeper, I feel so blessed!
From the blog of Los Angeles Speech and Language Therapy Center, Inc.
Pamela Wiley, PhD, CCC-SLP, is the president and founder of Los Angeles Speech and Language Therapy Center, Inc. She can be reached at email@example.com.