Developing New Opportunities for Students with Autism at Work

Find out How PTS Helps Students with Autism Find Jobs After High School

Young adult male seals a large box with packing tape as it moves down a conveyor belt in a shipping warehouse.For more than 20 years, Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) has been supporting students with special needs. Hundreds of our therapists work in schools across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware to help students with disabilities and disorders access their education.

Unfortunately, once these students leave school, many disappear from the community because they lack employment and social engagement opportunities.

PTS Co-Founders Diana Fongheiser and Pamela Hackett, MPT have long been passionate about opening new doors for people with autism at work.

Diana has a grown son with special needs who now works as a greeter in a retirement facility.  “Social skills have always been Paul’s strong suit,” she says, “but his lack of fine motor skills limited what he could do vocationally. Working with the elderly has been wonderful for him. He truly enjoys going to work every day.”

Others on the autism spectrum have on-target fine and gross motor skills, but lack the social and language skills needed to engage with fellow employees or the public.  

Identifying Manufacturing Job Placements for Graduates with Autism

Finding vocational opportunities for students with autism after high school is increasingly important.

Many jobs these students typically fill, such as bagging groceries or working in food services like Chick-fil-A, require high levels of personal interaction with the public and other employees—real challenges for someone who may have limited communication and interpersonal skills.

Meanwhile, manufacturing companies in our region clamor for reliable employees to work in their facilities. With fewer high school students learning traditional trades or manual skills, open positions outnumber people qualified to fill them.

Two male young adults with autism at work in the NewWay Air Bearings shipping department, folding boxes and cutting packing material.

Many of these work environments require individuals who can complete repetitive tasks with high accuracy but limited social interaction, making them ideal fits for many on the autism spectrum.

While visiting her husband Nick’s manufacturing company, NewWay Air Bearings in Aston, Pennsylvania, Pam Hackett saw an employee packing machine parts into a shipping box. The task was repetitive but demanded precision and attention to detail.

Pam told Nick she thought the job would be a great chance for someone with autism at the workplace. It was safe, easily taught, and didn’t require higher level social or language skills.

Nick was open to the idea, so Pam connected NewWay with the Delaware County Intermediate Unit’s (DCIU) transition team. DCIU recommended Jerry, a high school graduate with autism.

“People ask what kind of training we gave other employees about having a person on the autism spectrum at work,” says Nick. “All I did was tell them we had someone with autism coming on board, and he might say some things people don’t typically say, so cut him some slack. That was it.”

Nick adds, “We run a high-tech machine shop, which isn’t necessarily an easy crowd, but everyone loves Jerry. He’s one of the guys. And even more important, he’s a reliable, productive employee.”

The DCIU provided him a job coach early on, but now Jerry is fully independent. Things have gone so well, Jerry was recently offered a permanent position. And when a second young man with autism started a position at New Way, Jerry became his on-site mentor.  

Developing Goals with an Eye to Life with Autism After High School

Jerry’s success prompted Pam to look for a wide range of ways to connect the dozens of special education programs PTS serves with manufacturers in the region. It also underscores for her the importance of thoroughly assessing students’ strengths when developing meaningful functional goals for them.

“Just because some people with autism lack social skills doesn’t mean they can’t be highly functional in other areas,” she says. “A student on the spectrum may be non-verbal, for example, but have excellent fine motor skills and the ability to stay on-task. Why not look for employment opportunities that capitalize on those strengths?”

“If we know what local employers are looking for in terms of skills,” Pam continues, “we can incorporate that knowledge into our development of goals and specific skills training. We can help make students with special needs desirable hires for local companies, and also give them a competitive advantage.”

Most recently, PTS has launched a collaborative effort with the Bucks County Workforce Development Board to identify companies interested in developing local special education students as future employees.

“The students PTS serve have so much potential,” says Pam. “Through these partnerships, we as a company can help unlock that potential for the kids and for our community.”

Make a Positive Difference with PTS

Helping create opportunities for students with autism at work is one more way PTS is doing more good. 

And if you’re a pediatric therapist who’d like to be a part of our mission to help students reach their full potential, we have opportunities for you!

Click here to see currently open school-based therapy positions, or give us a call at 610-941-7020.

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