A growing SCA initiative is helping teens with autism transition into young adulthood. For the second consecutive summer, high school students with autism joined SCA crews to improve local green spaces. The partnership between SCA and Drexel University launched last year in Philadelphia. This year, it expanded to Pittsburgh and doubled in size.
“When I asked SCA to partner to support hiring youth with autism they were all in, stating they already have crew members with autism in their programs,” says Dianne Malley, director of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s Transitions Pathways program.
Summer Community Crews are unique from other SCA crew programs in that members are paid the equivalent of minimum wage to reduce potential economic barriers to participation. For many of these students, it’s their first shot at employment. With an unmistakable overlap between work readiness skills needed by youth with autism and those in their first job, the partnership between SCA and the Drexel University was a natural fit.
“With the SCA summer work crews, youth with autism are on even footing. All youth are learning basic work skills, they’re all learning to be on time together,” Malley explains.
Research shows that 90% of students with autism who hold down a job in secondary school go on to work in their early 20s – more than twice the rate of students who had not been employed.
Crews put in long, physically-demanding days building hiking trails, improving community gardens, and removing invasive species. “It got hot some days, and even rained. None of that stopped us,” beamed one Philadelphia crew member with autism.
Those along the autism spectrum developed higher levels of independence as they navigated public transit, completed assignments, and managed their paychecks. Of the six teens with autism who participated with SCA last summer, two returned to new crews this year and two others took jobs elsewhere—a positive indication of the initiative’s effectiveness.
The team-oriented SCA program model provides a starting point for youth with autism, many of whom feel socially isolated.
Participants interact with crewmates in a non-threatening space. Working alongside fellow students is often less intimidating than starting a conversation in the hallways at school, especially if classes are separate.
Students finish the summer with more self-confidence throughout their crew experience—and that’s a key for anyone transitioning from high school into young adulthood.
Throughout their summer, crew members establish a hands-on connection to nearby parks. For many, the work sites are in their own neighborhood. They don’t have to drive two hours away to see projects they’ve worked on.
“My favorite part of the summer was building trail,” one crew member with autism said. At the end of the program celebration, crew members were eager to show friends and family the trees they planted, the trail they built, and the pollinator garden they maintained.
By the end of the program, students have a deeper understanding of their local ecosystem and how they impact it. Even better, these lessons of sustainability and stewardship stick as the program ends and students head back to school. Youth are empowered to visit parks on their own, talk about recycling, and better connect with their community.
Preparing Crew Leaders
SCA crew leaders motivate, inspire, and guide students in work and life. One minute they’re delegating trail assignments and the next they’re dealing with emotional crises. They show up early and leave late. It’s an exhausting job, and extremely satisfying. Support for leaders was a priority as the initiative was launched.
Crew leaders received advance training and resources from a certified behavior analyst, and SCA and Drexel engaged leaders in weekly calls throughout the summer to create an opportunity for sharing issues, discussing dynamics, and brainstorming strategies to manage challenges more effectively.
Based on two years of programming, there’s mounting evidence that this initiative is helping youth with autism move into a more independent life after high school.
“Crew members and crew leaders both got a lot out of the experience,” says SCA Philadelphia Program Manager Briana Riley. “It was a huge value add for the program.”