This summer, through Community Autism Resources, I had the distinct honor of being a teacher in The Gottschall Autism Foundation’s Access program. The program is the brainchild of the Gottschall Foundation’s Board of Directors and was implemented in collaboration with People, Inc and Bristol Community College. The goal of the program is to create meaningful, accessible and applicable higher education opportunities for individuals with ASD who could not otherwise successfully access traditional college programs.
The focus of the summer program was broken down into 3 programs – Drama & Performance, Organic Farming & Growing Skills and a Paralegal Support Program. The program was held twice a week for 8 weeks from 11:00 – 4:00. During that timeframe, each class was held for a duration of 1-2 hours. The students also ate lunch in the cafeteria and had free time between classes to stretch, walk, relax, socialize and explore a predetermined area of the campus. Each instructor developed their own curriculum specific to the interests and learning styles of the 13 students in the program. We were also fortunate enough to have a program director who attended all of the classes, provided support when necessary, took care of all administrative duties and was there to troubleshoot issues that might otherwise take away the instructor’s attention to the class. The students were diverse in their needs, some had 1:1 support, others arrived independently on public transportation, but they all shared a motivation to learn, an excitement for new opportunities and a love of the social experience they all enjoyed.
I was the instructor for the Paralegal Support Program. This class taught students skills such as stapling, collating, filing, shredding, photocopying, scanning, packet and file assembly and all the intricate details and tasks that are involved in each skill. In addition to the job skills, we focused on the general rules and expectations of having a job: dress code, cell phone policy, security procedures. We also discussed anxiety and stress and practiced calming strategies, meditation and mindfulness weekly. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we learned about the social rules or expected behavior in a court or office environment: appropriate greetings in the workplace, how to ask for help or clarification, what to do when your work is completed, what to do if you’re feeling dysregulated or overwhelmed and need to take a break. We learned through video, photos, lecture, hands on practice, technology and iPad apps and role playing. The Gottschall Foundation has partnered with the Autism Higher Education Program to provide internships for the Paralegal Assistant students who have mastered the skills necessary to intern in the Probate Courts throughout the commonwealth. Three of the Access Program students have the opportunity to intern in the fall. We hope to increase this opportunity to other courts across the area as well as possibly other office environments. The drama program held a wonderful and highly attended performance at the end of the program where each student performed at least one act which throughout the summer they had chosen, practiced and choreographed. I was sincerely impressed at the level of talent that I witnessed that night. The organic farming program created a farmstand that same night where they sold different sizes and varities of basil plants that they had planted and cared for during the semester. They also offered a “pesto kit” that included all the ingredients along with a basil plant to make homemade pesto. They created signs that included recipes and healthy facts about the basil plant.
I feel the program was a huge success! Of course there were some key components to that successs. The first, I believe, was the creativity and flexibility that went into the design of the program. We can no longer (and never should have) expected all adults needing daily support to fit into the same programming structure. It’s not fair and it’s not realistic. Everyone’s skills, challenges, interests and personalities are different…all of us! We need to look more creatively at how adults with ASD are spending their time. I can’t count how many times a student would comment to me during the program that they loved being in college. The students were proud, motivated, accountable, and learning real life skills. Of course the other components necessary for success are to have instructors who are not only passionate about their subject, but knowledgeable about the learning styles, challenges, strengths and needs of an adult with ASD.
I am so grateful to have been a part of this program. I believe I learned and gained as much as the students throughout the summer. I hope we can continue to expand opportunities for adults with ASD through more creative programming.