Web of social services buoys adult with autism

The Autism Puzzle: A New Jersey Angle

Staff Writer

 Kevin Petranich performs his tasks at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton. Kevin Petranich performs his tasks at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton. This is part six in an occasional series of stories about people with autism in New Jersey. The entire series can be found at www.gmnews.com/autism.

K evin Petranich doesn’t hit the snooze button on his alarm clock or call in sick to work. His apartment is always in order and his meals freshly prepared. He volunteers and goes to community events on weekends, and enjoys annual vacations far from home.

Petranich, 34, has autism. He has lived in a supervised apartment for a year in Lawrenceville, Mercer County, where he grew up. The high-functioning man’s drive and attention to detail long ago earned him respect at his full-time job.

Petranich’s life is a carefully crafted trot through the settings that most people take for granted: Work, home and play. Through a comprehensive chain of supports and a growing independence, he has reached what many consider to be the pinnacle of the adult-services system for individuals with autism in New Jersey, according to those in Petranich’s life.

“I guess I probably didn’t understand how concerning that was to me until I saw it come to fruition,” said Kathleen Moore, Petranich’s mom. “I can take a deep breath and know that he’s happy, he’s healthy, he’s engaged, he has some money, he has choices in life, and he has people around him who care and love him.”

The first thing to go right in Petranich’s adulthood came when he was still in high school. His school and county provided transportation and job-coaching services as he sampled a wide range of occupations in his community, Moore said.

Petranich’s reading skills, sharp memory and eye for detail made him thrive in the mailroom, she said. In 2001, after sampling work at Princeton and Rider universities, he landed a steady job in the mailroom at Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) Princeton campus, where he remains today.

Steady, full-time work is a dream for many parents of people with autism. Jobs are often hard to come by, and many parents have opted to start their own businesses to carve out careers for their children, according to experts. But Petranich’s foot in the door turned out to be the first stride toward success.

“I’ve had this job a long time — 13 years,” Petranich said recently during a break from work.

When questioned about his favorite part of the job, Petranich readily fired off several answers, from sorting mail to looking up information.

What is clear, his supervisor said, is that Petranich loves what he does.

“He comes in and if there is mail here, he will do it before he gets set for the day. That has always been Kevin since the day he got trained,” said Jillian Paterson, senior manager of interoffice services for ETS. “… We used to basically have to kick him out at the end of the day when we were shutting off the lights.”

Petranich works from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a half-hour lunch break, Monday through Friday, Paterson said. The mailroom also employs several other individuals with developmental disabilities, she said.

The jobs are neither cushy nor borne of sympathy, she said. ETS reaps a great deal of productivity from its workers with disabilities, who in turn take home a living wage.

“Companies get so much back if they do this, because the productivity goes up,” Paterson added. “They don’t take off. They love to work. They do a great job. But it has to be a great fit for the person, as well as the company.”

Through its Project Hire program, the Arc of New Jersey sends a job coach to Petranich’s workplace for about 10 hours every month to make sure that everything is running smoothly, said Moore, his mom.

Petranich has a health insurance policy through ETS that is reinforced by Medicaid coverage. And his pay grade fits into the puzzle of requirements necessary to maintain the level of state funding for the various services that make his life function so well, she said.

“He makes a decent salary, but it’s under the threshold of what you can make if you need supports,” she said.

Petranich, who receives state supports under the widely pined-for community care waiver, contributes to the state’s costs, as well, she said.

Moore acknowledges that this job might not last forever. While he’s had a long run, as have most of his co-workers, Petranich’s luck can change, she said.

“I hope it lasts for as long as it does and there’s something equally pleasing to him if and when that’s not there — if he can’t quite make it to 65 in the mailroom,” Moore said.

Although Petranich landed a job early in life, he waited about 15 years for independent housing, which experts have said is a common story. But in early 2013, he moved into a supervised apartment run by Eden Autism Services in Lawrenceville’s Avalon Run complex, Moore said.

Support staff is always on-site when Petranich and his roommate are home, said Mona Shahid Siddiqui, Eden’s coordinator of adult services. She said they administer medication, help with meal preparation and chores, take the men to community outings and, perhaps most notably, teach new skills.

“Based on his yearly individual habilitation plan, there are goals that are put together, and Kevin works on those throughout the year,” Shahid Siddiqui said. “Those goals are put in place for him to be as independent as he can be.”

Preparing salads and baking, for example, recently topped Petranich’s list. And he made progress. Not long ago, he made cake pops and cupcakes for a local bake sale, Shahid Siddiqui said.

As Petranich grasps concepts like cleaning, the staff’s hand in those activities fades, she said. But his medical needs — Petranich is prone to seizures — will never allow total autonomy.

“That’s not something that could or would happen,” Shahid Siddiqui added.

Eden meticulously arranges most aspects of Petranich’s life, with bursts of spontaneity when appropriate. The structure is key to quality of life, she said.

During the week, he wakes up around 6 a.m., freshens up, cooks breakfast and gets a ride to work through AccessLink, the public transportation service for people with disabilities, Shahid Siddiqui said. When he returns home, he changes clothes, relaxes with a book or the TV, prepares dinner and tackles chores before bed.

Weekends bring volunteerism, recreation and family time, she said. Petranich is active in his community — more so than many typically developing people might be.

“He has become more confident as far as carrying himself out in the community when they go out and participate in events,” she said.

While the state funds services through Eden, Petranich pays for meals at restaurants and vacations, which are two of his favorite ways to pass the time, said Moore, his mom.

This year, the roommates are slated to spend a week at an Eden retreat house in Cape May. But Petranich, an avid traveler who has left the country several times, could change his mind.

“They said we can go away somewhere else if I want to go somewhere else,” he said. “… Maybe another state.”

No matter where he visits temporarily, Petranich’s family won a major battle when they built a life for him close to his roots. He regularly sees his loved ones and remains near familiar sights, but he is now his own man, Moore said.

“The quality of his life is that much better, not having to have mom cart him around and not needing me where he needed me before,” she said.

And the same is true for Moore. She will always think about Petranich’s well-being. But she now has peace of mind in knowing that he found a place in society, which is so coveted by many parents of adults with autism.

“It’s not the first thing on my mind when I get up or go to sleep. It’s not out of my mind, but for 30-some-odd years, my entire day was scheduled around what needed to be done for Kevin,” Moore said. “… He’s thriving. What more could you ask for?”