“The ideal situation [for our students after they leave Hillcrest] is living as independently as possible and having some part-time work,” said Tom Leonardo, the vocational teacher at Hillcrest’s ASD Residential Program. And that’s what the staff in the vocational classroom aim to do.
While preparing young people for life after school isn’t an inherently unique undertaking, teaching a classroom of young autistic adults (or soon-to-be adults) with varying skills, interests, and abilities can be a challenge. Fortunately, Mr. Leonardo and his teammates are up to the task.
In the vocational classroom, staff provide a variety of skill-building opportunities to the students. Some are quieter projects that keep them in the classroom, such as task boxes, which help the students practice their sorting skills, from rolling plastic cutlery in napkins to preparing trail mix for the coffee cart.
Others are bigger projects that take them around the school building and interacting with their community.
For example, two students are responsible for post-meal time clean up. After breakfast, William washes dishes while his classmate cleans the cafeteria. After lunch, they swap roles. Not only are they getting the hands-on, practical cleaning skills, but it’s an opportunity to interact with different people.
Making and selling coffee is another project the students work on. Twice a day, they go around the school, selling coffee and snacks to Hillcrest staff. In the warmer season, they sell iced coffee with options for creamer, oatmilk, sugar, and vanilla and hazelnut syrups.
“We are working on money math skills. They’re working on social skills,” said Mr. Leonardo. “They’re working on following directions and getting out of their comfort zone, so that maybe one day they can graduate to something with the public.” This public job could be something like a small cafe that they’ve made in house in their adult programming.
While the work can be challenging, the students do take pleasure in the tasks. “My favorite part of the school day is getting work done,” William said. “I do the dishes, vocational activities, and community trips. We go to lunch in the community, mail run, and bottle return for money.” When he needs help—throwing heavy trash bags in the dumpster can be challenging—William turns to staff.
Working Towards Goals
“Each student has a fixed schedule tailored to their needs and IEP goals that we have to get through every single day and each year,” said Mr. Leonardo. “The schedule may change throughout the year depending on if we hit the milestones.”
One student’s IEP goal is to increase his work endurance by 50% over the course of the whole year. The staff start small, having him complete one task and taking a break. Then they go to two tasks and so on. If they can meet those goals, the schedule is changed to accommodate new goals and skills.
“Another student’s goal is to demonstrate kitchen safety. He flew through all the [classroom work.] And now I can take that off his schedule, because we want to put it into practice practically. So once they hit their IEP goals throughout the year, we can change the schedule depending on what their needs are.“
“Payment” for Work and Appropriate Behavior
Like everyone, the students aren’t working for free. The staff have a reward system that gives students the chance to earn “dollars” and “stars” towards the school store and the daily surprise box. The types of items they can “buy” with their “earnings” all depend on what the student enjoys. Staff will also remind students of their bigger savings goals. Sometimes this helps the student keep her bigger goal in mind and choose to save. Other times, she might decide she’d like that smaller ticket item anyways.
Ultimately, everything they do in the vocational classroom is to set the students up for a successful work life as adults. Some may find part-time employment with local businesses like Zip n’ Sort and Blue Q. The majority of Hillcrest’s vocational students, however, would find work in their adult services, perhaps in the kitchens, laundry rooms, etc.
“The vocational program was created so we could offer more opportunities for our young adults who would be transitioning into adult services,” says Yvette Stoddard, Director of Autism Services. “The hope was, if we gave them more opportunities to engage in ‘work’ and community based instruction, they may transition to programming that offers those same opportunities, such as outings, supported work, etc.”
Hillcrest’s goal for each vocational student is for them to find meaningful, fulfilling work, whatever that might look like for them based on their skills.
Don’t forget to read our interview with Deborah Salmon, a senior supervisor for Hillcrest’s ASD Residential Program.