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MERS/Goodwill Autism Program - Technology

St. Louis
United States

MERS/Goodwill has provided vocational rehabilitation services to individuals with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome for over 30 years. As part of our ongoing mission to serve individuals with disabilities and disadvantages in living and working more independently in the community, MERS/Goodwill is developing a new comprehensive service for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The program will provide a place where individuals on the spectrum can go to begin or continue their transition to self-sufficiency. As with all of our services, this program will focus on increasing employment and independence within the community through acquiring work appropriate soft-skills, broadening community social integration abilities, receiving coaching and post-employment services, and increasing independent living skills. The program will be based in mid-St. Louis County, at a location highly accessible via public transportation.

The program will have work as its core goal and will assist individuals in determining their interests, strengths, and needs on a job. This will be done through a combination of work samples, discussions with parents and other stakeholders, vocational and interest testing, job trials, employer informational interviews, analyses of work history, and volunteerism. Finding employment is a full time job and there are necessary skills that must be developed and refined in order to quickly obtain the best possible position. A job developer will be assigned to each participant to work one-on-one with them in developing job-search skills and locating employers. Finally, we will provide one-on-one assistance in learning job responsibilities and retaining employment.

Students will be provided access to the “cognitive prosthetic” software, My Bionic Brain, a customized life manager/day planner designed to meet the complex needs of individuals with ‘cognitive inconveniences.’ This software, created specifically for the iPad by Cognitive Harmonics, is based upon a print-based tool originally developed in 1990 for individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury. As discussed on the Cognitive Harmonics website, the software includes “strategies for dividing and alternating attention, remaining oriented in time and space, cognitive flexibility, communication, emotional control and executive function.”

The software’s focus is individualized instruction on overcoming barriers in the following difficulty areas:

• becoming and staying oriented

• following instructions

• initiation and follow-through

• time management

• organizing and sequencing tasks (task management)

• organizing and expressing thoughts (interpersonal communication)

• management of troubling feelings and socially appropriate behaviors

• effective, independent decision making

My Bionic Brain elevates compensatory strategies to the tactical level, providing students with tools they can immediately apply in their day-to-day life. As mentioned on CBS’ 60 Minutes, “autistic children show a real interest in the iPad with its easy touch-and-swipe screens. With specially designed applications, or apps, these computers are helping them communicate” and unlock their isolation.

In exploring ways to better serve our clients, our research has shown that not only is it important to implement program models that are more tailored for clients on the spectrum, but that the actual physical space in which services are delivered can have a significant impact on consumers with ASD. For example, sensory issues related to ASD can be mitigated or eliminated with proper architectural techniques. Recognizing that we did not have programmatic space that would be considered ASD-Sensitive, we raised the capital funds, and have begun construction on an ASD-sensitive center, which will be finished by the end of 2012.

The Autism Center will not only allow us to better serve our existing clients, but will hopefully offer an employment-oriented option for parents, guardians, and individuals on the spectrum living in the St. Louis County community and beyond. We currently estimate serving 100 individuals with ASD and/or their parents or guardians in the first year, and growing that number over later years. The targeted sub-population will be young adults, age 18-30 in the St. Louis area.

From our experience providing services to clients on the spectrum, we project placing 30% into positions by the end of the first year, though we will continue to work with unplaced clients. We expect a 50% retention rate at 90 days past employment.