by Anthony KaDarrell Thigpen
AUTISM EDUCATION – Students at Autism Academy for Education and Development gain a host of support for work skills that aid them beyond school.
AAED transition coordinator Karen Durst and vocational skills teachers Leslie Dille continue focusing on the end game. Together, they offer students a variety of campus-based and community work programs in the East Valley and North Phoenix.
The shared transition goal at all AAED campuses is to give kids with autism an array of opportunities. Their transition process starts as early as elementary school. Career Technology Education (CTE) programs afford students the opportunity to explore various options to spark an individual interest.
At the Autism Academy, CTE classes include coding, teacher aids, and culinary arts, just to name a few. Recently, students concluded a 9-week off-campus culinary program with a dinner outing packed with 54 paying patrons.
“They used skills like communication, measurements, time management and teamwork,” Dille said. “During the dinner, they impressed the staff and their families with the skills they learned.”
They prepped, cooked, served and cleaned during the year-end event. Dille is currently working with one student to pilot an apprenticeship concept. Timothy Baltzley creates hand-made vinyl product labeling. He applies marketing labels to coffee mugs, water bottles and books.
“All 15 students work hard,” Dille said. “They earn additional points to use in the school store.”
The products are sold and proceeds benefit the vocational program.
“Our kids have to make a head-to-hand connection,” she said. “We need basic job skills for moderate students who may struggle to be independent.”
Students with autism are often placed in coding, sorting, cleaning, or other structured repetitive jobs. Durst said, “An important part of transition is teaching kids how to embrace their disability rather than hating it.”
Many students with autism possess the potential to earn a diploma, secure a driver’s license, manage a work schedule, and some even go to college. Students in a rigorous academic environment, with parent support, and an experienced transitional coordinator, are able to set goals, excel, and exceed expectations.
The North Phoenix campus created a concept called Café on the Go. Students and staff can purchase food and drinks every morning. Student café workers stock shelves, complete inventory and provide quality customer service. However, Durst says successful work-based learning programs have great business partnerships.
AAED West Valley students work at Top Shelf Mexican Cantina, St. Mary’s Food Bank, Michaels, and Home Depot. East Valley students gain off-campus employment experience at local businesses like Not Your Typical Deli, Community Garden, and Tribal CrossFit Gym. Durst also encourages self-advocacy. AAED coordinates with the Department of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) as an added resource to help students transition.