Youth with autism spend summer working with the Student Conservation Association
By Bushraa Khatib
September 21, 2017
Every summer, teens who are hired to be a part of the Student Conservation Association (SCA) in Philadelphia spend six weeks doing hands-on work to meet the community’s needs, from sprucing up a community garden or clearing a trail. This year, a new collaboration with Drexel University enabled youth with autism to participate in each of the six regional Philadelphia area crews – something that has never been done before.
Dianne Malley, Director of the Transition Pathways program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s Life Course Outcomes Program, was inspired to help SCA hire youth with autism, citing research that shows having a competitive paid job during secondary school is a strong predictor of job success after graduation.
“Currently, there is a focus on employment for adults with autism, but I wondered why not start earlier?” Malley says. “Having teenagers myself, I know how important these early work experiences are for teens. My daughters have learned how to contact a supervisor when they couldn’t come in to work, to handle conflict in the work place, to speak up for themselves, to open a bank account and manage money, to save money, among other numerous skills.”
Dr. Paul Shattuck, leader of the Life Course Outcomes Program, created Transition Pathways to explore innovative strategies to help youth on the autism spectrum achieve a successful transition from high school. Malley and her team convened the SCA, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, and Community Integrated Services to develop the pilot.
Malley was familiar with the SCA and reached out to a contact at the organization. The SCA was very interested in the idea, and things progressed quickly from there. One student with autism was assigned to each of six local crews.
Students showed up bright and early at 7:30 am every day alongside other crew members for their assignments. Whether it was closing up trails to preserve them from damage caused by foot traffic at Valley Forge National Park or building bike paths, members were introduced to the conservation ideas, techniques and skills that are necessary to be successful conservationists. In addition to the hands-on component, members participated in environmental education days on Fridays, where they met environmental activists and visited Drexel to get a taste of what college is like. The students also visited the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel to get a behind the scenes tour of the collections. The experience culminated in a weekend camping trip that organizers say went smoothly.
It was up to the six members with autism whether or not they wanted to disclose their autism diagnosis to their peers. “I think that it was a great learning opportunity and wonderful experience. There was a huge value add for the program,” said Brianna Riley, the SCA’s Philadelphia Regional Manager. She attributes the program’s success to allowing students to just be themselves in a judgment-free zone, made possible by the option for confidentiality of their diagnosis. Although the program has hosted members with autism and disabilities before, this was the first attempt to intentionally recruit more youth with autism. “Members and crew leaders both got a lot out of the experience,” she says.
One of the students with autism attributes his summer job with helping him be more in touch with friends. “If I hadn't had this job my mindset wouldn't be the same,” he says, and is grateful for the work experience.
The Student Conservation Association is a national non-profit whose mission is to inspire the next generation of conservation leaders by engaging young people in local conservation projects in their neighborhood. This program is a community program model where local students in the Philadelphia and Camden area are recruited to give back to their communities through service. The SCA partners with the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reach out to the community to determine what their needs are, and assigns summer crews to work on the resulting projects.
The SCA, A. J. Drexel Autism Institute, Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and Community Integrated Services collaborated together to provide funding for supports to the youth as seamlessly and inclusively as possible. This funding also paid for training the students how to use public transportation to get to work – an invaluable skill that will help them reach and keep jobs in the future.
Another notable feature of the partnership was that supports were provided in an inclusive, unobtrusive manner. Additional SCA staff were hired to help support the youth with autism through on-the-job training rather than sending in job coaching staff from an outside agency. The Autism Institute also provided training and support to SCA crew leaders on handling issues that may come up when interacting with youth on the autism spectrum.
All involved in setting up the program are excited to see how the partnership might be expanded in future years – from recruiting more students to ultimately serving as a model for additional partnerships to create opportunities for inclusive job experiences for those on the autism spectrum.
“We are hoping that this pilot can be expanded to other summer work programs with the SCA,” says Malley.
Bushraa Khatib, BS, is the Outreach & Communications Specialist for the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.