Autism institute helping adults enter workplace

Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Joseph Lowes looked through documents Tuesday as part of his work routine at the Center for Regional History. Lowes, who is autistic, is a graduate of the Tailor Institute. AARON EISENHAUER aeisenhauer@ semissourian.com

John Berry can name every king and queen of Europe, not just England, in succession. Give him a blank map, and he can label it with each country and capital. Dates, names and events in history are talking points for hours.

But ask him where the car keys are, for a phone number or to say hello to co-workers, and that is more difficult. Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, Berry struggles with making a social connection. Asperger's is a milder former of autism, associated commonly with social awkwardness or restrictive behaviors. Berry, 21, joins a growing number of people diagnosed with the syndrome entering adulthood.

"When you look at a lot of programs, assessment and intervention, a lion's share is focused on the younger set. The earlier an intervention can occur, the better. But as we go through our life span, we'll see more and more individuals diagnosed with a type of autism entering adulthood and looking for services," said Elaine Beussink, the director the Tailor Institute, a not-for-profit organization.

The institute targets people like Berry — young adults with a form of autism who are high functioning. Participants must demonstrate giftedness or a particular strength. The goal is to help the participants gain social skills so they can use their strengths to contribute to society, attain employment and improve the quality of their life.

Started in 2006, there are currently five people — three high schoolers and two college students — who participate in the institute's skills training sessions or social outings. The institute is in the Southeast Innovation Center and operates like a clinic, with training and assessment by appointment.

Both the college students complete internships to gain work experience. Berry works at the Southeast Missourian, scanning photo negatives. The other student, Joseph Lowes, works for the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University, where he is a part-time student. At the center, Lowes files papers, archives documents and will work on a project over the summer making a map of a cemetery in Oran, Mo.

Beussink said people with a form of autism may be able to find employment, but sustainability is often a challenge. "Because of the dynamics of the spectrum disorder, they may be perceived as rude, impolite or insensitive. Those may be things needed to maintain employment. If you appear insubordinate or are too rigid, those are complaints employers may have for releasing an employee," she said.

After graduating from Cape Girardeau Central High School in 1998, Lowes drifted between jobs. "I worked as a dishwasher, as a janitor. ... I attended Shawnee [Community College], but I had trouble adapting right off," he said.

Now 28, Lowes lives on his own, drives and is majoring in history. He works at the university about 10 hours a week. Dr. Frank Nickell, the director the Center for Regional History, supervises Lowes and calls him a competent employee.

There have been some hiccups, such as the time Lowes came to work disheveled, "looking like he had stood on his head all night," or when he overslept his alarm. But Nickell said Lowes "has made progress with that."

When he graduates in the next two or three years, Lowes said, he would like to own his own business, but he hasn't decided what it will be. Highly articulate, Lowes enjoys coming to the Tailor Institute to animatedly discuss the fall of the Roman Empire or the emperor Charlemagne.

Berry, who was first diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and giftedness, answers most of his questions with two- or three-word responses. A proficient writer, he expects to find a job doing research or writing.

Because his disorder is mild, his mother, Nancy Berry, said her son is acutely aware that he doesn't have the friends and social life "everyone else has." He's joined a service fraternity, which she describes as a big risk for him but allows positive social interaction. He has a wicked sense of humor that often surprises people, she said.

At Southeast, he has allowances for extra time on tests or to be provided notes, but she said he frequently chooses to do things on his own.

"He wants to get married, have a home, get a job suited to his abilities, what every other adult wants. The Tailor Institute is finally a place where he can connect and feel like he's understood," Nancy Berry said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "for decades, autism was believed to occur in 4 to 5 per 10,000 children." In 2007, the center estimated a form of autism affects about 1 in 150 births. The Autism Society of America estimates diagnosis of the disorder is growing between 10 and 17 percent a year.

lbavolek@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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