Feighan: As kids with autism age, what’s next?
Drive along the Lodge Freeway heading north from Detroit and you’ll see a large green billboard for the Autism Alliance of Michigan, a nonprofit that helps families affected by autism across the state.
“Help. Hope. Answers. Today,” it declares.
As frightening as an autism diagnosis is — and answers may seem elusive — there is hope today. Many children start therapy much sooner, thanks largely to a state law approved in 2012 that required fully funded insurers to pay for Applied Behavioral Analysis, the only evidence-based therapy for autism. And while the rates of autism continue to rise — 1 in 59 kids is now on the autism spectrum, according to CDC figures released last week — many say that’s largely because of better diagnostic tools.
Colleen Allen is the executive director and president of the Autism Alliance, which played a key role in helping change Michigan’s law in 2012. Based in Bingham Farms, it has a unique program that connects professional service coordinators (they’re called navigators) with parents trying to find services, address medical issues and juggle safety concerns.
Allen has a cousin, Tim, now in his late 30s, who has severe autism. Today, the face of autism is so much different than it was three decades ago. It’s Tim, who is nonverbal and doesn’t live independently, but also the CPA with two master’s degrees who struggles to keep a job and maintain relationships.
There are roughly 10,000 people with autism in Michigan, the majority of whom are adults. Some are so mildly affected you may never know they have autism. “With autism, it’s an invisible disorder,” said Allen.
But as an entire generation of children on the spectrum ages, leaving school behind, there’s no question that challenges loom. How many will be able to live independent lives? What supports will they need? And are we ready?
Allen said one of the biggest issues the alliance is dealing with these days, aside from a proposed budget cut from the state, is the underemployment and unemployment of adults with autism.
Unable to find employers to hire autistic adults or even agencies equipped to find jobs for higher-functioning individuals, the alliance has stepped up to become its own service provider. They have a database of 450 job-seekers across the state, all on the autism spectrum. The alliance provides training, everything from working on social skills to IT, for those looking for work. And they now have 50 companies interested in hiring someone on the spectrum.
Often, Allen said, it’s about educating the potential employer as much as the employee.
It requires “lots of prep ahead of time,” said Allen. We “make sure that those supervisors understand these behaviors and that they know how to support this individual who is going to come with unique sensory challenges.”
But they’re making progress. Ford Motor Co. now has approximately 10 positions filled with individuals on the spectrum. And GM has opened its doors as well.
“It’s not just automotive,” said Allen. “We have some small mom and pops, some financial institutions. We just put seven people at Motor City Casino. So it’s very exciting. It is. They are all abilities. We have some that are just high school degrees, some with job completion certificates. Roughly half are bachelor’s level. And 15-20 percent that are master’s level.”
But jobs are one thing. Helping autistic adults live as independently as possible will require a multifaceted approach that also addresses housing, medical issues and so much more. Still, it’s a start.
And with ABA therapy now available to so many children, Allen believes the next generation of individuals on the autism spectrum “are really going to look different going forward.”
“It’s the skill building that, in the best case scenario, puts a child on a path of mainstreamed education, being prepared for high school and eventually college and a job,” she said. “That’s the real difference.”