Imagine if you were consistently told you would never be able to work or make a living. For some students with autism, this insinuation is a constant. A program run by a Western Michigan University professor works to challenge the status quo.
The program is called Promotes, which stands for providing realistic opportunities to mentor on-site training for employment skills. Promotes currently partners with the Van Buren Intermediate school district to provide students with autism employment and social skills. The opportunity to start this program came from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services a few years ago, said Dr. Jessica Frieder, WMU professor and program director.
“They were having a competitive grant opportunity to engage in a number of different areas in autism related diagnostic and services,” Frieder said. “A couple of my colleagues who received some past funding came to me and said ‘are you interested in any of these different areas’ and one of those was to increase paid employment outcomes for individuals with autism who are 16 and older.”
While the primary purpose of the program is to help students with a disability to get a job out of high school, that’s not the only thing students can get out of the program that can be necessary for life. Dr. Frieder shared a story about a student who has been in the program for two years and has gained valuable skills.
“I think there are ripple effects, we don’t always focus on other kinds of skills along the way but we’re here to help build anything that individuals are interested in,” Frieder said. “Once he had a job he wanted to be able to drive himself, we worked with him on those kinds of skills or we talked about what kinds of things do you want to do to build your own life, he wanted to be able to go to the gym and he had never done that on his own and made friends to go to the gym, we worked on that.”
Countless Promotes’ students have found employment at places such as Meijer and Walgreens and one student has even established a working relationship with Head Start in Van Buren County. There are also students who have gone the self-employment route.
Some of the students in the program have been told throughout their lives that they would never be able to get a job or live on their own. Dr. Frieder says she gets tears in her eyes when she thinks about it.
“I’m getting teary eyed just thinking about it because it’s your heart work. Those are some intangible things that we can program a lot of that,” Frieder said. “These are individuals that sometimes have been told you will never be able to get a job, you will never be able to live on your own and to be able to see them accomplish that, you can’t paint a better picture than that.”
Dr. Frieder added that colleagues benefit from having one of the students in the workplace because they contribute a lot. She also said that undergraduates can get involved by conducting research and registering for practicum. Sometimes students have earned credits but stay beyond a semester, she said adding that this is also a great experience for students who are interested in ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis).