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Intensive schooling can help autistic students overcome grim employment numbers

TAMPA

The other day in a classroom at Pepin Academies, a charter school on Hillsborough Avenue for students with learning-related disabilities, senior Adam Riddley of Brandon stared at a form on his desk called the Transition Information Survey. What were his plans after graduation? What were his career goals? Where did he hope to be living in a year? In five years? In 10? Riddley, 18, who has Asperger's syndrome, which is a form of autism, picked up his pencil.

This might seem like a perfunctory exercise. It's not.

One in three young adults with autism has no paid job experience, college or time spent in technical school nearly seven years after high school, according to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics. That's worse than the rate for young adults who are intellectually disabled. It's especially worrisome because more and more kids in America are being diagnosed with autism — now one in 88 by age 8. This is going to get worse before it gets better.

It took a lot for Riddley to get to where he can look at these kinds of questions and consider them with anticipation and not consternation. Now, though, he has plans to avoid winding up on the bad end of that statistic.

After graduation? Erwin Tech, he printed. After that? Nursing, he wrote. Maybe eventually, he answered, he could get an apartment of his own.

• • •

His parents divorced when he was 4. He went to Lewis Elementary in Temple Terrace for kindergarten and the first grade and then to Kingswood Elementary in Brandon through the fifth. His teachers told his mother he was sweet but slow. His peers raced ahead.

He tried to make friends. He thought they were playing. They knew they were teasing. It took some years before he could tell the difference. Worse than not knowing was the opposite.

"A lot of kids would look at me, like, 'What's his problem?' " Riddley said.

He was still angry when he got to Pepin.

In the sixth grade, and in the seventh, he was almost uncontrollable. He hid under desks. He flipped them over in frustrated rages. He used scissors to wreck decorations on teachers' walls. He ran from them, through sets of doors, ending up outside. He had to be chased.

Pepin has roughly 425 students. Almost all of them have been diagnosed with a disability. About 35 percent of them have some form of autism. The signs on the walls add up to a mantra: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. We are not only trying. We are training. Can't is not an option.

The teachers at Pepin are certified to work with students who require special education expertise. They have uncommon patience.

The people who run Pepin have a few reactions to the latest statistics in Pediatrics.

Founder Crisha Scolaro calls it "a travesty." Speech pathologist John Coyne calls it "a crime."

They do better than that here. Eighty percent of the students graduate with a standard high school diploma. Successes sometimes come in different terms and at different times, but almost all of the students who finish at Pepin, according to Coyne, go to college, get a job or get some sort of post-secondary training.

But it's hard to know precisely what to make of any studies on autism, say staff at Pepin, because the spectrum is so varied and vast. There is ongoing debate over which of the myriad human combinations of behaviors, cognitive abilities and personality quirks even can properly be labeled as such.

Some of the students at Pepin have trouble controlling what they say. Some of them have trouble controlling how they move. Some rock back and forth in their chairs. Some clench their faces like all of a sudden something hurts. Some head to bean bags in corners to curl up tight and fetal and try to shake away an issue. Some laugh too loud. Some laugh too late. Some don't laugh.

Those who work in the field put it like this: If you've met one person with autism … you've met one person with autism.

And Adam Riddley is … Adam Riddley.

He loves Star Wars and Marvel Comics and bowling and Japanese anime. He plays hours of video games like Final Fantasy. For lunch, he prefers tiny, prepackaged pizzas from Lunchables, a pouch of Capri Sun fruit punch and four Oreos. He has no driver's license. He has no learner's permit. He has no savings account.

He also has a habit of noticing when classmates are having a tough time, like the other day when one of them got up from his seat after class, stood still and started rubbing his hands together, over and over. "You all right, Chris?" he asked. It's one of the reasons he believes he could make a good nurse.

Later, after he finished filling out the transition form, he spilled his snack bag of Bugles under his seat. He got down on his knees and meticulously picked the crumbs off the carpet so nobody else would have to clean up his mess.

Back in seventh grade, said his reading teacher, Colleen Patton, "I had no idea what I was going to do with him." Now? "Love him to death," she said.

"He's not perfect," Coyne said, adding that Riddley sometimes has trouble staying focused on a task until its completion, "but he's quite a capable young man."

"He's really come into his own and flourished in these last couple years of high school," said Ronda Tyler, his mother. "It's been such a transformation."

"A lot of it has to do with the staff members not giving up on me," Riddley said.

He has a 3.08 grade point average. Graduation is Thursday.

• • •

After a test in English and in-class preparations for finals in economics and algebra, Riddley walked down a hall, past a billboard pegged Senior Spotlight, with pictures of some of his classmates headed to Hillsborough Community College, Saint Leo University in Pasco County and the University of Central Florida, and into a group session with guidance counselor Tammy Shaw. Back when he first came to Pepin, he met with a behavior specialist, who helped immeasurably, he says. He still meets regularly with Shaw when he feels unorganized or overwhelmed.

She distributed to the group of a dozen or so students a questionnaire gauging their social support networks. She read the questions out loud.

Sometimes I feel alone in the world. Yes or no?

"I do," said a student with Asperger's named Joey.

Shaw reminded them to keep their answers to themselves and write them down.

I have many true friends.

"Define true for us," said a boy named Andy.

I rarely get invited out by my friends.

"That used to be true," Riddley said softly.

The numbers assigned to Riddley's answers added up to the group's highest score. He feels supported because he is.

"He has a great plan," Coyne said.

"It's never going to come easy to him like it does to some people," his mother said. "But he definitely has it in him. It's all within his reach. He just has to reach out and grab it."

Last class of the day, last week of the year, ready for the rest of his life, he walked to drama and theater where the teacher read roll.

"Adam Riddley?" the teacher said.

"Accounted for," Adam Riddley responded.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

Intensive schooling can help autistic students overcome grim employment numbers 06/03/12 [Last modified: Monday, June 4, 2012 1:58am]

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