Finding Their Way in the World

March 5, 2011

Recently, Temple Grandin, acclaimed animal behavior specialist who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), spoke at an Autism and Employment forum about how individuals with ASD can be valuable employees if they are properly prepared. So how are students with ASD – or any other condition considered a disability – preparing for employment?

There are a variety of options, but I have a special interest in Branch Out, the transition program offered through the West St. Paul school district that my son attends. The goal at Branch Out is to give students the skills to confidently go forth and become as independent and fruitful as possible, says special education teacher Pat Pendleton. “In the past, students were not out in the community because they didn’t know how to access it,” she explained. “If students don’t know how to access the community they become isolated.” If they are isolated, they won’t become employed.

Branch Out students, who are 18 to 21 years of age, engage with business people and learn about different industries and professions. Recently, editorial page editor Mike Burbach and I were invited to speak to 19 students, who have a wide range of challenges and skills, as part of their unit on the newspaper business. We fielded questions ranging from how obituaries are prepared to why the paper does not cover more stories about animals to whether the Pioneer Press has any employees with ASD. Then we turned the tables and I demonstrated how I work by interviewing two students. The outcome was a window into their world.


In a typical day, students gather in the morning, peruse the newspaper and share news of the day. Then each student follows his or her individual schedule. Students take classes at Dakota County Secondary Technical Center and Inver Hills Community College. They volunteer through DARTS and Neighbors, Inc. Several work at Southview Acres Manor through a program administered by Midway Training Services. They are paid minimum wage to perform jobs ranging from wiping the banisters to playing bingo with residents. Companies like ProAct hire students to work onsite or at area enclaves.

Branch Out students learn to work independently and cooperatively. They are schooled in budgeting and time management and instructed on how to access light rail, buses and Metro Mobility. They learn the rules of the road. Throughout the week they prepare lunch menus, sticking to a budget. They scan fliers for deals and shop at local stores. Each day at noon, they prepare and share lunch. They make twice-weekly treks to the local YMCA and library. Not only are they acquiring skills, they are learning to navigate unfamiliar places and to follow social mores. Moreover, they are interacting with others who may become their employers, co-workers, or neighbors.

They have a job club. With assistance from the county Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, students learn how to prepare resumes and interview for jobs. They learn what jobs really entail by shadowing. Joe, a second-year student from Mendota Heights who aspires to be a full-time certified swim coach, also loves animals. He arranged a job shadow at Southview Animal Hospital. Watching from behind the scenes, he observed as the veterinary staff prepped the animals for surgery and performed x-rays. “It’s nice to see what the job is actually like … and to see if it would be a good fit.” After interviewing the veterinarian about educational requirements and what’s involved in running a clinic, he concluded that he could be happy in a supporting role of some sort.

Paul, also a Mendota Heights resident, is a second-year student at Branch Out. Interested in anything that involves working with animals, he arranged a job shadow at Skadron Animal Hospital. While there, he listened to the heartbeat of several animals. A font of animal facts, he volunteers at Como Zoo as an animal interpreter once a week. He imagines working at Petco or PetSmart.

Students are paired with e-mentors, volunteers who typically communicate by email, offering advice and encouragement. Chad Stone is co-owner of Navy Island Plywood, which is near Branch Out Center. In his first year as an e-mentor, Stone is forming relationships with a young woman named Ricky and my son, Jack. Stone said it felt good to get involved. Spending time with people with challenges helps to dispel misconceptions and alleviate fear. The more familiarity people have the better, he said. “Then people who don’t have challenges are able to walk by someone who does in the grocery store and look him in the eye and say hello. That can be a hard thing for someone who doesn’t have that exposure.”

Exposure and awareness work both ways. Pat Pendleton, the teacher, cites the old adage, “Know thyself.” As Branch Out students come to know and trust both themselves and the staff, they lose the fear that comes with having a disability. They learn to talk about it with each other and to appreciate that while it is a piece of who they are, it doesn’t define them and isn’t necessarily a liability,” she said. By understanding themselves, she said, they are better able to self-advocate and find their place in life.