Every summer, teens who are hired to be a part of the Student Conservation Association (SCA) in Philadelphia spend six weeks doing hands-on work to meet the community’s needs, from sprucing up a community garden or clearing a trail. This year, a new collaboration with Drexel University enabled youth with autism to participate in each of the six regional Philadelphia area crews – something that has never been done before.
Dianne Malley, Director of the Transition Pathways program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s Life Course Outcomes Program, was inspired to help SCA hire youth with autism, citing research that shows having a competitive paid job during secondary school is a strong predictor of job success after graduation.
“Currently, there is a focus on employment for adults with autism, but I wondered why not start earlier?” Malley says. “Having teenagers myself, I know how important these early work experiences are for teens. My daughters have learned how to contact a supervisor when they couldn’t come in to work, to handle conflict in the work place, to speak up for themselves, to open a bank account and manage money, to save money, among other numerous skills.”
Students showed up bright and early at 7:30 am every day alongside other crew members for their assignments. Whether it was closing up trails to preserve them from damage caused by foot traffic at Valley Forge National Park or building bike paths, members were introduced to the conservation ideas, techniques and skills that are necessary to be successful conservationists.
In addition to the hands-on component, members participated in environmental education days on Fridays, where they met environmental activists and visited Drexel to get a taste of what college is like. The students also visited the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel to get a behind the scenes tour of the collections. The experience culminated in a weekend camping trip that organizers say went smoothly.
It was up to the six members with autism whether or not they wanted to disclose their autism diagnosis to their peers. “I think that it was a great learning opportunity and wonderful experience. There was a huge value add for the program,” said Brianna Riley, the SCA’s Philadelphia Regional Manager.
One of the students with autism attributes his summer job with helping him be more in touch with friends. “If I hadn’t had this job my mindset wouldn’t be the same,” he says, and is grateful for the work experience.
Author: Bushraa Khatib, BS, Outreach & Communications Specialist for the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.