Reddix prepares autistic students for adult life

By Miranda Larralde

Photo by Miranda Larralde

SAN ANTONIO — For individuals with autism, finding a job in the workforce after high school can often prove to be difficult. However, a school in San Antonio, is working to make the transition process easier.

According to the National Longitudinal Transition Study by the Drexel Autism Institute, two-thirds of individuals with autism were unemployed or not enrolled in school following high school graduation. This trend was shown to continue into their early 20s.

One school that is helping those with autism transition into the workforce is The Nellie M. Reddix Center, a school for students with disabilities in the Northside Independent School District and surrounding areas in San Antonio. The Reddix Center’s involvement with helping individuals with autism transition into adult life spans almost 30 years.

Veronica Contreras, a speech teacher at The Reddix Center, said “The rate of unemployment for those individuals is really high, Despite the fact that they do have a lot of strength.”

All the students who attend The Reddix Center have some degree of intellectual and developmental disabilities, and range from 3 years old to 22 years old. An intellectual disability differs from autism, although a person can be diagnosed with both. Having an intellectual disability means that an individual can communicate well, but their IQ can be very low. At The Reddix Center, individuals are tested for both autism and intellectual disabilities.

“Most often, when you’re diagnosed with autism, you don’t necessarily receive an intellectual disability diagnosis,” Contreras said. “Usually [autistic individuals without an intellectual disability] have an IQ that is average or above average, but their ability to communicate [verbally] is impaired.”

The inability to communicate is one of the major hindrances that prevent those on the autism scale from getting jobs. The most important aspect when it comes to getting a job after high school for individuals with autism is their ability to interact with others efficiently and effectively, Contreras said.

“Sometimes, verbal communication might not be a strength for some of these kiddos,” Contreras said. “Our kiddos with autism tend to do better with structure and with repeated instructions. Sometimes visuals to explain it to them, or even modeling it for them once. They pick up on it.”

In order to do a job in the workforce, it is important that they first learn how to correctly complete the tasks that they are given. Some ways may include visuals or modeling to convey what they are being asked to do, according to Contreras.

“Repetition of skill building in their area of choice everyday is the key,” Gracie Flores, a special education teacher at The Reddix Center said. “[We] teach, practice and reteach until we find the right tool that best helps the trainee. They see it, and then go practice it.”

Contreras said that a lot of the students have obsessive compulsive tendencies, which actually helps make the repetitive training practices more effective. After being shown how to do something, it is important that the certain skill be repeated and followed in that order in the future.

“They’re perfectionists,” Contreras said. “So when we get them, it’s like ‘let’s capitalize on those strengths’ in spite of communication deficits.”

However, training should extend beyond the classroom, according to Contreras. Students with a lot of support early on from their parents are often the ones who will succeed in the workforce. The students who work within their abilities and are treated like any typical kid are more likely to obtain a job later in life.

“Some parents are not really aware of their child’s strength and abilities,” Contreras said. “Other parents are the opposite, and they have high expectations for their kids.”

In addition to help from parents, schools have also implemented training and classroom simulations in order to effectively transition autistic individuals into adult life.

“They can have trouble if they’re on the job that involves a lot of interaction,” Janet LaVallee, a psychology specialist at The Reddix Center said. “Part of what we do at our campus is getting them out into those situations where they can practice what they’re trying to learn.”

The best way for preparing those with autism for the workforce is putting them into situations that simulate what they will be experiencing out in the workforce. LaVallee said that when working in fast paced environments, those with autism may feel put on the spot because they tend to work at their own pace. This can lead to meltdowns, but The Reddix Center gives them the tools to handle these situations calmly and effectively.

“We use, for our retail skills, building trainees various strategies to include YouTube training, video modeling, pictures, iPads as well as their personal mobile phones,” Flores said. “We also practice basic skill building at our campus store by mimicking some of the needed skills in the stockrooms, sales floors, as well as customer service.”

Even though schools like The Reddix Center are preparing autistic individuals for the workforce, employers are still often hesitant to hire individuals with autism or special needs, LaVallee said .

“It does involve more work and support upfront,” LaVallee said. “But on the other hand, there are a lot of business and organizations that require repetitive work, and they just need somebody who can stock shelves, or package things — do tasks that don’t involve a lot of thought.”

One store that is dedicated to hiring those with disabilities is H-E-B, a Texas-based grocery store. According to Dya Campos, the Director of Governmental Affairs at H-E-B, hiring individuals with disabilities has been engrained into the foundation of what H-E-B is as a company.

“For over a century we have been creating opportunities for Texans with disabilities throughout our company.” Campos said. “Including in stores, warehousing, manufacturing and in our administrative offices. We believe that each and every person counts.”

Some young adults with autism and intellectual disabilities have the potential to contribute to society, it is just a matter of companies like H-E-B giving them a chance, according to LaVallee.

“For the most part, individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders can be functioning members of the community,” LaVallee said. “They can have a purpose, they can have relationships, and they can have jobs.”

Miranda Larralde is a Sophomore Journalism and Radio-TV-Film major at The University of Texas at Austin. You can subscribe to her on Youtube: Randitions and follow her on Twitter: @mirandomly