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Penn State Autism Conference Explores Challenges Facing Autistic Students

by on August 05, 2015 11:23 AM

When Joshua Liebeskind graduated from the Chapel Haven special education school in Connecticut, the funding for his program dried up, leaving him with little help transitioning into the workforce.

“I was on my own,” he says.

Liebeskind, who has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, was at Penn State on Tuesday to share his experiences as part of the annual National Autism Conference at the Penn Stater.

Bradley McGarry, who heads up the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst University, says stories like Liebeskind’s are sadly common.

“About 15 percent of people on the autism spectrum are employed,” McGarry says. “That means 85 percent are unemployed, even though they have the skills to maintain a position.”

McGarry says there are multiple issues that may contribute to these statistics: the symptoms that accompany autism spectrum disorders may cause a potential employee to unjustly fail an interview; employers could be intimidated by the prospect of hiring someone who may require a job coach or other assistance; or the stigma that still surrounds the autism spectrum may cause employers to be prejudiced against potential employees.

“Institutions like Penn State are critical because they are training the next generation of adults who will provide important social services,” McGarry says. “We need to educate students in these degrees, and we need to provide social and emotional support to students on the autism spectrum.”

Liebeskind says he was able to find another program that provided social supports and helped him transition from school to the workforce, but that the change wasn’t perfect. His case was handled by multiple overlapping organizations, causing a morass of bureaucratic difficulties before he landed a good paying job in the IT field.

During group discussions at an autism conference panel on Wednesday, many parents expressed similar concerns about the difficulties associated with going through government agencies or social service organizations.

One woman lamented the difficulties of understanding the complex laws surrounding social services. Another said it was like her son “had fallen off a cliff” after he graduated high school because he no longer had access to the school’s resources, and there were no programs in place for his post-school life.

“We’re really misleading families by saying ‘systems have the answers,’" said Joan Kester, a special education professor with George Washington University. “We may be doing great things in schools, but the adult service side is not prepared to support students as they transition.”

Thankfully, Kester says that many organizations are beginning to recognize this shortcoming, and are implementing new tools to work closer with students and potential employers to bridge the gap. The Arc of Centre County is one local group that’s working hard to make transition from school to work easier for individuals on the autism spectrum.

Arc worker Amy Debach-Confer says the nonprofit started using a new “discovery program” within the last year. The program involves the organization spending extra time with a client to learn about their particular skills and interests, which is then matched up to the needs of employers in the area.

“The Arc of Centre County has started offering discovery as an option for persons with developmental disabilities to make sure they have the proper employment placement based of their interests and life experiences,” Debach-Confer says. “Not many facilitators have done this yet.”

But Jane Theirfeld Brown, co-director of the College Autism Spectrum, says it’s not just up to colleges and nonprofits to make way for change. It’s up to everyone. 

“This is a societal issue,” Theirfeld Brown says. “We’re going to be the next door neighbors and the co-workers, and we have to learn to coexist.”

The National Autism Conference continues through Thursday, and offers numerous panels and discussions for parents, professionals and those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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