Autism Institute Celebrates First Class of Project SEARCH Graduates

The Project SEARCH interns and instructors.

The first class of Project SEARCH students at Drexel University, alongside their instructors at a June 15 event celebrating a successful first year for the program.

For the students, the day marked a major step toward independence. For their parents and families, it was a moment to be proud. And for the Drexel University staff and their community partners, the celebration June 15 in the SkyView Lounge was a chance to reflect on a successful first year for the Project SEARCH program.

Project SEARCH, a joint effort involving Drexel, Hill-Freedman World Academy, the Philadelphia School District, the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services and Community Integrated Services, honored its first group of eight students with autism for their work over the past school year at offices right here on campus.

The program, which is part of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s Transition Pathways initiative, pairs young adults with autism with work sites in an effort to ensure they find success and independence as they enter the world beyond high school. The project was developed and introduced in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and has since grown to more than 300 sites worldwide. The eight members of Drexel’s inaugural class each, all between the ages of 18 and 21, rotated through three 10-week internships at on-campus sites including the University’s Dragon Card office, Barnes & Noble, Event Services and University Housing. For program manager Jessica Sances, the first year delivered promising results.

“From our department managers, the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Sances. “When we first started I think a lot of people were fairly apprehensive because they hadn’t worked with someone with autism before and they weren’t sure what to expect. I think they’ve had a really positive experience and have actually come out as advocates for the program and they’re excited to host new interns next year, so that’s really exciting.”

At the ceremony, each participating student was presented with a certificate for completing the program and greeted with a warm round of applause from a room filled with family members and supporters. Paul Shattuck, PhD, director of the Life Course Outcomes program in the Autism Institute, thanked families for the leap of faith they took signing their children up for Project SEARCH, and the sense of trust they invested in the people running the program.

“You’ve made us proud with your great work ethic,” he told the students. “These are really terrific young adults, and we’re so happy to have them on campus.”

Intern Adrienne Walls at work in the Barnes & Noble at Drexel University.

Each of the three program instructors who worked with the eight students all year took the opportunity to say a few words about the experience, acknowledging that it was valuable for both the students and their teachers. Cynthia Santiago fought through tears as she reflected on the time spent with the interns.

“It was an absolute pleasure to watch all of you meet each challenge, no matter how difficult it was, with optimism and a positive attitude,” said Santiago.

Each day during the school year, the students came to campus and went to work. According to Dianne Malley, the director of Transition Pathways, adults with autism show much better long-term success if they have work experience at a young age. With that in mind, Project SEARCH is the first of several programs to be rolled out in the coming years as part of Transition Pathways. In the fall, an inclusive post-secondary program will allow students on the autism spectrum to audit Drexel classes, and this summer, young adults with autism will be hired on crews to work at parks around the city.

“The interns made it successful this year,” said Malley. “They all represented the program beautifully and I think that’s what’s made it really successful.”

At the start of the school year, it took a bit of effort to convince some of the students’ families that traveling alone to get to Drexel’s campus — which they all did — was the right thing for them, Sances said. But with the support of the families and the eagerness of the students themselves to try something new and develop their skills, everything came together. By the end of the year, several of the students expressed an interest in cooking for themselves and even living independently, both signs of progress for youth with autism.

DeShaun Cole, one of the students whose work brought everyone together in the SkyView Lounge to celebrate, offered some brief remarks at the event. He said he enjoyed the program and would recommend other people join. And it made a difference for him beyond the classroom and the workplace.

“It helped me grow as a person,” he said.

Drexel offices and departments interested in developing an internship site can call Transition Pathways at 215.571.3635.