Working With Autism
Almost one percent of all children in the United States have been diagnosed with autism, a number that has risen dramatically over the past ten years. For many parents, their biggest concern is what to do when those children become adults. But some of them are making it on their own.
Take Daniel Shackelford for example. He has Asperger’s Syndrome. But now he spends most of his days deep inside Seton Medical Center, cleaning surgical equipment in the sterile processing unit.
Shackelford has had a hard time keeping a job in the past, like the one he had at a pet store in his hometown of Krum, Texas.
“There was an incident where I was vacuuming one time and I accidentally sucked up a cockateel feet first into the vacuum cleaner,” Shackelford said.
But after working at Seton for the past three years, Shackelford has been living independently.
“I’m able to have paychecks that help me find or help me make the money I need to buy at the grocery at the store,” he said. “It takes care of things I need like things at the grocery store, book store, you know movie theater.”
Shackelford was able to do this through a program called Project Search. It started 15 years ago in Ohio, when the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital was trying to stop the high turnover at its entry level jobs. It started offering training to young adults with intellectual and development disabilities. Since then, the program has expanded to 39 states, including one location in Texas, at Seton Hospital.
“I can tell you that all of my folks who have gotten jobs through this. They’re just excited to be here. They want to work,” said Jenny Hawkins, the Project Search coordinator at Seton Medical Center. “The best day of their life is when they get that Seton badge and they get to put it on for the first time. And you would think it was gold.”
But Project Search has a limited capacity of just six interns a year. While there are other publicly funded workplace training programs for people with autism in Central Texas, the waiting lists are long.
Angela Day is the chairperson of the National Autism Association of Central Texas in Austin. Her 18 year old son has been on a waiting list for seven years.
“This biggest concerns are what is going to happen to him when I’m gone, because people with autism and Asperger’s don’t really develop friendships easily,” she said. “Their lifeline is their parents.”
But for parents like Day, things might get worse before they get any better.
That’s because in the last legislative session, state lawmakers wanted to balance the budget without raising taxes, so they cut $15 billion in government spending. Included in that was $50 million in cuts for early childhood intervention, which helps prepare kids with autism for adulthood. And $30 million was cut from Medicaid waiver programs that serve people with intellectual disabilities like Autism.
The Texas Council on Autism released its annual report last week outlining the impact of state cuts on support services.
“It’s going to continue to be a problem in the future as children who are in the school system right now grow up and become adults and seek out the kind of supports and services they’re going to need once they leave the school system,” Texas Council on Autism chairperson Frank McCamant said.
Some may leave the school system sooner than others. The Texas Council on Autism cites federal statistics which say that almost half of students with autism don’t graduate high school, adding to their list of challenges if they try to venture into the workplace.