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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Portrait of a Young Man

In The New York Times, Amy Harmon offers a lengthy portrait of Justin Canha, a young man with ASD. In his Montclair, NJ, high school, he has been in a transition-to-adulthood program whose director is Kate Stanton-Paule.
People with autism, whose unusual behaviors are believed to stem from variations in early brain development, typically disappear from public view after they leave school. As few as one in 10 hold even part-time jobs. Some live in state-supported group homes; even those who attend college often end up unemployed and isolated, living with parents.

But Justin is among the first generation of autistic youths who have benefited throughout childhood from more effective therapies and hard-won educational opportunities. And Ms. Stanton-Paule’s program here is based on the somewhat radical premise that with intensive coaching in the workplace and community — and some stretching by others to include them — students like Justin can achieve a level of lifelong independence that has eluded their predecessors.

“There’s a prevailing philosophy that certain people can never function in the community,” Ms. Stanton-Paule told skeptics. “I just don’t think that’s true.”

With some 200,000 autistic teenagers set to come of age in the United States over the next five years alone, little is known about their ability to participate fully in public life, or what it would take to accommodate them. Across the country, neighbors, employers, colleagues and strangers are warily interacting with young adults whose neurological condition many associate only with children.

Some advocates of “neurodiversity” call this the next civil rights frontier: society, they say, stands to benefit from accepting people whose brains work differently. Opening the workplace to people with autism could harness their sometimes-unusual talents, advocates say, while decreasing costs to families and taxpayers for daytime aides and health care and housing subsidies, estimated at more than $1 million over an adult lifetime.

There are critics of this figure, but no one disputes that families, government agencies, and people with autism all have high outlays associated with the condition.

Indeed, most statistics surrounding autism policy are contested, incomplete ... or just nonexistent. The article continues with an observation about the Montclair program:

The approach, sometimes called “community-based instruction,” is widely viewed by educators as the best way to prepare special needs students to navigate real-life settings. But the federal government, which pays states extra for their education, does not require that school districts track which students are employed in the years after they leave school to determine the relative success of different transition programs.