Learning life skills critical for those with autism

Staff Writer

 Jeremy Myron Jeremy Myron The chance for people with autism to effectively make the transition to adulthood hinges not only on the limited scope of incoming state services, but the realworld experience they gather in high school.

Jeremy Myron, a 21-year-old with autism who is slated to graduate from Brick Township High School in June, has fared well. He worked in nursing homes, busy kitchens and clothing stores. He knows how to tie his shoes and bake mini-pizzas, though crispier than some prefer.

However basic those work and life skills may seem, they lie at the heart of what people who have autism in New Jersey should learn before their right to a free and appropriate education ends at age 21, giving way to a drop in funding, according to experts.

“The educational entitlement uses money, resources and staff to really prepare individuals for adult life,” said Linda Meyer, an applied behavior analysis professor at Caldwell College. “That’s the critical point.”

The state requires all students, including those with developmental disabilities such as autism, to take several courses geared toward career and life readiness, according to the state Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. How that shapes the instruction of a person with autism depends on both the school district and the student’s individualized education program (IEP), according to the state.

One of the most valuable attributes that people with autism should acquire is paid and unpaid work experience, Meyer said.

“Research tells us over and over again that getting the individuals into the community and having them practice job skills is vital,” she said. “That’s what leads to a successful transition.”

Carol Myron, Jeremy’s mom, said her son has bagged groceries at a food pantry and filled saltshakers at a golf club, among a range of other tasks. Job sampling armed Jeremy, who falls somewhere in the middle of the autism spectrum, with useful abilities and a track record of being able to follow directions, she said.

But, like many of the obstacles that Carol and Jeremy face as they move closer to his transition, the program was not flawless, she said. His opportunities relied on outside factors like the district’s busing schedule.

“His job sampling was good, but it could have been better,” Carol said.

Career exploration is just one component of what the state calls community-based instruction. Without social and life skills, the most technically adept employee cannot thrive in the workplace, Meyer said.

“Where they are often lacking is in all those things that make you and I successful in our jobs, like social skills,” she said. The Freehold Regional High School District, which spans eight Monmouth County municipalities, has received attention for its push to prepare pupils with autism for life’s menial — and perhaps most essential — chores. Three times a month, a team of therapists, teachers and paraprofessionals organizes outings that are meant to teach those lessons to students enrolled in Howell High School’s autism program, according to Colleen Canto, the school’s special education supervisor.

“They go into the community on targeted trips where they learn how to make purchases, go to stores and all the prevocational skills that are necessary prior to getting to the point where they are able to go out independently with a job coach,” Canto said.

Each student’s timeline for undergoing such training is different, she said. That is common throughout the state, as parents, teachers and professionals work together to design IEPs that are meant to best train each child, she said.

“We always try to form the program around that student,” Canto said. “We’re not fitting our students into the programs we have.”

Like every school district in the state, Freehold Regional’s staff members also play a large role in the bureaucratic side of the shift to adulthood.

Canto said the district spreads central information to parents through IEP meetings, workshops and email blasts. Officials from the state agencies that administer services for adults with autism often work with the school district to beckon a smooth transition, she said.

In New Jersey, school districts must kickstart that process once a student who has autism turns 14. Many other states wait until age 16.

“At every IEP meeting, we focus on transition,” Canto said. “We always joke with the parents that as soon as their child comes in as a freshman, we’re going to start talking about how we’re going to get them out of here and what they’re going to do next.”

But for some people with autism, that next chapter represents a challenge that is absent from the lives of many typically developing young people. One of Carol’s greatest fears is that Jeremy will not find a rewarding social life after graduation.

Right now, he occasionally goes bowling with other individuals who have developmental disabilities through a local supportservices group. Although he enjoys the activity — he recently took pride in earning a score that broke 100 — the program lumps him together with people who are as old as 80, Carol said.

“He should be with his own peers,” she said, adding that the current situation is better than Jeremy sitting at home on a Friday night.

The sorest point is that Jeremy, unlike some people with autism, likes to spend time with his peers, Carol said. He attends school functions, has a girlfriend and jumps at the chance to leave the house, she said.

And Jeremy will continue to find that fulfillment in the classroom, if only for a few more months.