Untapped Talent

Low unemployment and insurance reform have helped create more job opportunities for people with autism, but administrative barriers within schools are holding some affected students back.
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Chris Watttai doing laundry
Workplace: Chris Watttai does laundry as part of Oakland University’s Extraordinary Ventures Michigan program that gives those with autism work opportunity. // Photographs by Hayden Stinebaugh

Because an estimated 90 percent of autistic adults in Michigan are unemployed, there’s plenty of untapped talent and unrealized potential for a group that is usually relegated to sheltered workshops or unpaid volunteer work.

It’s not for a lack of motivation. Historically, the steps needed to become employable —
education and therapy — have been lacking or difficult to access for people with autism.

Insurance reform in 2012 widened access to behavioral therapy, which parents of autistic children previously paid for entirely out-of-pocket, and created opportunities to train therapists. But low expectations, public misunderstanding, and administrative barriers within schools hold back the estimated one in 68 people nationwide who are affected by autism and prevent them from successfully finding employment opportunities. 

Parents like Dave Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer at DTE Energy in Detroit, whose 19-year-old daughter, Maribel, has autism, are working to change that. Methodical in his approach, he and others launched the nonprofit Autism Alliance of Michigan and worked with the insurance industry to cover the developmental condition. Despite those efforts, improving public education and creating more workplace opportunities remain genuine challenges.

Taking a lead in tackling the education issue is Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, whose daughter Reagan, 8, has autism. Calley says it took him and his wife about a year to get Reagan diagnosed and on track with applied behavior analysis therapy, or ABA, which is considered the gold standard. 

“It took longer to achieve the kind of education scenario that my daughter needed because the current special education system was developed at a time when there was a substantial void in autism service providers in Michigan,” he says. “My impression is if it was that hard for somebody like me, most people wouldn’t stand a chance.”

Calley, who signed autism insurance reform into law, completed a Special Education Listening Tour in the summer, during which he made 10 stops throughout the state to listen to parents and gain feedback on insights from parents about special education in the state. He also posted an online survey for parents; it accumulated about 2,000 responses.

In September, Calley told the State Board of Education about problems he’d heard about regarding the use of restraints or seclusion, or both, to modify the behavior of children and young adults with autism; a cookie-cutter approach to individualized education plans, or IEPs; and confusion among parents about the process for formulating the plans. 

There also were instances where the IEPs weren’t being implemented in classrooms, as well as tardy job and career transition planning, dispute resolution by courts instead of mediators, low expectations for students, and perceived intimidation of teachers by administrations.

“(On two different occasions) we heard from teachers who said, ‘I had a lot to offer but I was afraid for my job if I were to speak up in defense of this child or this parent,’ ” Calley says.

The survey results also indicated that less than half of the respondents were either very satisfied or satisfied with their child’s education plan, Calley told the board.

“There aren’t very many places in government — or, I should say, in the world — where you can have half of your consumers satisfied and continue to operate,” he says. “There’s a big chunk of people who didn’t really know if they should be satisfied or not (because they didn’t know what to expect). They just know that they didn’t like the outcome.”

That was the case for Alan and Patty Woods of Northport, north of Traverse City, who sued their school district in 2006 to get an effective education for their son, Tom, now 17 and in the ninth grade at Northport Public School. 

Patty Woods says she knew there might be trouble when another mother who had a child with autism offered some startling advice early on. “She looked at us and said, ‘Just take whatever (the district) gives you and be happy they’re giving it to you,’ ” Woods recalls.

Alan Woods, vice president of operations for his family’s business, Sherwood Manufacturing in Northport, says that nearly 10 years after their initial lawsuit, he and his wife are still fighting over procedural issues and reimbursement for legal bills that top half a million dollars. They’ve also endured judges with no experience in special education issues. 

The Woods say the system is stacked against them. Under current law, it’s the parents’ job to prove that what the school has provided is deficient — and because they can only complain in retrospect, they say they have to resort to drawn-out hearings and untimely decisions that further delay valuable education opportunities for their child. The Woods believe they had inadequate input in developing Tom’s education plan because of an imbalance in the process — up to 20 district employees and just two parents attended consensus meetings where decisions were made.

They’re great employees — they show up every day, on time; they know what the job is, and they do it and do it well.  — Laurie Montgomery, Kalamazoo Public Schools

“The school district always comes across as, ‘We’re the experts,’ ” says Patty Woods, who used to teach in another district. “You get tired of fighting every single person.”

Chris Parker, superintendent of Northport Public Schools, didn’t return a call asking for comment. 

The Meador family voiced similar frustrations, although their education story has a happier ending. When Maribel was in sixth grade, the Troy School District told her parents the schools didn’t have the resources to support her, Meador recalls. Not easily dissuaded, he met with the school board and superintendent and pointed out all of their claims to excellence.

“Why wouldn’t you want to be excellent at this, too?” he asked.

Over time, the district hired a teacher, the Meadors paid for an applied behavior analysis therapist, and Maribel ended up in a regular classroom. “It was a miracle to watch, in some ways,” Meador says.

Maribel currently attends career and technical classes part-time, and volunteers at the Michigan Humane Society and at the bat house at the Detroit Zoo. Her father isn’t sure what career she’ll choose, but he’s certain Maribel will be working with animals. He also knows he has a lot more work to do to improve things for his daughter and others affected by autism.

“There’s a gap between what the Michigan Department of Education believes is excellence and what’s going on in schools,” he says. 

That being said, there’s real hope, both because of Calley’s efforts and because a state school board member has a child with autism, Meador points out.

Another hopeful sign is a 20-year-old partnership between Kalamazoo Public Schools and Western Michigan University’s training program for applied behavior analysis.

“It’s fantastically mutually beneficial for everybody,” says Dick Malott, a psychology professor at Western Michigan who oversees the university students. “People come from all over the world to be in our graduate program. There’s nothing that compares with what we’re doing.”

The WMU-Kalamazoo partnership includes about 80 undergraduate and graduate-level university students who spend time at the Woods Edge Learning Center in nearby Portage. The students work with up to 100 preschoolers with autism who have significant
behavioral issues.

“We feel early intensive intervention is critical for these students, and we simply couldn’t afford to replicate that (with hired staff),” says Laurie Montgomery, assistant superintendent for special education at Kalamazoo Public Schools.

Kalamazoo schools are also helping the fourth group of students interning in the system’s Project Search High School Transition Program, an international, one-year, school-to-work opportunity for people with disabilities. It’s working: More than 87 percent of the students who’ve completed Project Search internships in Kalamazoo have been competitively employed; one woman with autism is a family advocate in a Head Start classroom.

The program includes interns with autism. Currently, half a dozen are working at Bronson Healthcare, also in Kalamazoo, preparing food, delivering equipment, or cleaning. “These are students who wouldn’t necessarily be hired otherwise,” Montgomery says. “They’re great employees — they show up every day, on time; they know what the job is, and they do it and do it well.”

Chris Plummer farming
On The Farm: Chris Plummer has a farming operation growing micro-greens to sell on campus as part of the school’s workplace program for those with autism.

Colleen Allen, president and CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan in Southfield, says some school districts are doing an admirable job, but it’s not consistent and it’s not the majority.

“The perception is that people with disabilities cost a company more, and they can’t do a job at the same level as a typical employee. On the other hand, we have research that shows if you (train them properly), they will outperform their peers.”

DTE also has Project Search interns who have come to them through the Detroit Public Schools, and they recently hired one of these individuals to do programming in their information technology department. “Some people would view this as an act of charity,” Meador says, “but, no, it’s good business.”

At another workplace, Extraordinary Ventures Michigan, which operates on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester Hills, nine people with autism do laundry, grow organic micro-greens, and provide scanning and shredding services for an array of businesses.

“A job description might not sound like something they can do,” says Don Reid, executive director of Extraordinary Ventures and a former member of the Detroit Pistons, “but if we break it down into tasks and keep the same process going over and over, they feel confident.”

Troy resident Chris Wattai, 27, works three days a week sorting, folding, and dropping off laundry to students, churches, and daycare centers. “I like it,” he says. “It’s fun and the people are nice.”

Wattai, who makes the minimum hourly wage of $8.15, gets paid every two weeks and uses his earnings to buy art supplies and Star Wars DVDs.

Nationally, employers such as Meijer, Lowe’s, and Walgreens are making efforts to hire people with disabilities. At Walgreens’ distribution centers, 12 percent of workers identify themselves as having a disability. The drugstore chain also has a program to train disabled workers in its stores; of 784 people who have been trained from 2012 to 2015, Walgreens hired 165 in 21 states (none are in Michigan, according to a company document).

At the same time autism insurance reform has greatly assisted parents and children;
it’s helped universities create new programs for training board-certified behavior analysts and related professionals, and has led to jobs for graduates.

Today, all of the state’s major universities have programs. The reform also has led to a more than tenfold increase in the number of certified behavior analysts who are uniquely qualified to make an autism diagnosis in school districts — from 30 statewide in 2011
to 333 today — according to the certifying organization’s website.

Some of those analysts have landed at the Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System, Beaumont Health System (Beaumont Children’s Hospital), and the University of Michigan Health System, all of which offer medical diagnosis (different from school district diagnosis) and ABA therapy. 

“There’s a great demand, and the need is going to increase,” says Scott Barry, CEO of Centria Healthcare in Novi, which offers in-home or center-based therapy in multiple locations.

The health system has a roster of about 460 pediatric clients with autism. Each receives 10 hours to 40 hours of ABA therapy a week. Centria is reimbursed (largely by Medicaid) at a rate of $40 to $60 per hour, depending on the county in which the child lives.

In January, Medicaid will start reimbursing for therapy up to age 21. The current age cutoff is 6. “The thing that I love about ABA and what we’re doing is that if there’s no cure, there is help,” Barry says.

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