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School partners with employers to hire young adults with autism

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At Pepsi Bottling Group in Lower Paxton Township, Jay Jones, right, gets a high five from Hamdi Ayed, the warehouse manager. Jones takes apart damaged pallets of soda and creates new pallets from undamaged products.
At Pepsi Bottling Group in Lower Paxton Township, Jay Jones, right, gets a high five from Hamdi Ayed, the warehouse manager. Jones takes apart damaged pallets of soda and creates new pallets from undamaged products. - (Photo / )

James Bissett recently started a warehouse job at Hersheypark, helping with the park's candy supply, taking inventory, rotating stock, shrink-wrapping products and assisting with displays.

Nothing would seem out of the ordinary except for one important fact: Bissett, 21, is autistic.

“This is what I always wanted for him,” Elizabeth Cogley said of her son. “Now I can sleep at night knowing he's working and making a contribution to society.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 U.S. children is affected by autism. And because it can cause significant social and behavioral challenges, the prospect of entering the workforce may seem nearly impossible.

Cogley knows different.

"They’re extremely loyal and hardworking. They show up on time, they stick to the rules – they’re model employees."

“James is doing fantastic at Hersheypark,” Cogley said, adding that since he started working, his confidence level has increased, he's using more language and he's “very proud of himself.”

“My dream for him is to eventually be able to work full time,” she said. “He's currently working 30 to 35 hours a week, so he's getting close.”

The Vista School

Cogley credits the Vista School in Derry Township with helping Bissett reach his milestone.

Created in 2002 to prepare autistic children for public school and eventually the workforce, Vista serves more than 90 children with autism spectrum disorder from the ages of 3 to 21. Its educational and therapeutic programs include one-on-one instruction for learning new skills and, for older students, functioning independently.

Bissett, who was one of the school's first students, graduated in August. Cogley said a crucial segment of his vocational training during the past year was working several part-time jobs to find out what he might like to do — including at the Elizabethtown College cafeteria, the laundry department at Ronald McDonald House in Hershey and the wardrobe department at Hersheypark.

“I knew James could do more,” Cogley said. “I know that he's appreciated for his abilities and not looked down on for his disabilities.”

Number of autistic workers to grow?

The Institute for Community Inclusion, a Boston-based advocacy organization, estimates that half a million teens and young adults with autism will be looking to enter the workforce in the next decade.

ICI says that employment is a critical component for most adults to build full and productive lives.

Kirsten Yurich, chief clinical officer at the school, said its new employment services program pairs clients such as Bissett with businesses that are interested in hiring people with autism.

“We tap into the individual's skills and interests, and then help businesses find a match for their needs,” Yurich said. “It's not a charity for the businesses, however, and we're not asking them to hire someone at subminimum wage or let them be volunteers for years. This is customized employment and true job matching.”

Part of the training includes teaching students how to complete a résumé and do interviews, she explains.

“There are some things that they may not be good at, such as communicating, but they often have great skills that an employer would really be lucky to have,” Yurich said.

Solving puzzles, saving money

In addition to the Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co., which operates Hersheypark, the Vista School also partners with the Pepsi Bottling Group in Lower Paxton Township, Pinnacle Health System and Penn State Hershey, among others.

Yurich points to two more examples, including a Vista student who is good with names and numbers and is now assisting with filing in Hershey Entertainment's finance department; and a young man at Pepsi, Jay Jones, 23, who takes apart damaged pallets of soda and creates new pallets from undamaged products.

“To him it's like a puzzle, and he loves the physical work,” Yurich said. “Plus it saves Pepsi tens of thousands of dollars a year.”

Amy Groft, human resources coordinator at Pepsi, said Jones is working about 12 hours a week at the plant and has done a “really good job for us.”

“The supervisors are very pleased with his performance, which just keeps getting better and better,” Groft said. “Plus his co-workers really enjoy working with him.”

An untapped labor pool

David Kearon, director of adult services for Autism Speaks, a leading advocacy organization based in New York, said autistic individuals are “a largely untapped labor pool that hasn't been given a chance.”

He adds that, while the unemployment rate for people with autism is as high as 90 percent, more businesses are starting to recognize the benefit of hiring them, particularly in technology.

“In general, they enjoy certain types of work that you and I might not find interesting,” Kearon said. “We get tired of doing the same thing every day, but they actually prefer that kind of work. They thrive on repetition, they show high attention to detail, they're very consistent and they don't lose interest. And that's perfect for a software developer, for example, where they need people to do testing and quality assurance.”

Kearon said that, while many such jobs have been shipped overseas, some are starting to come back specifically because autistic individuals are so good at them. Other industries where he sees more autistic individuals being hired include food services, hospitality and health care.

“They're extremely loyal and hardworking,” Kearon said. “They show up on time, they stick to the rules — they're model employees.” 

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Larry Portzline

Larry Portzline

Larry Portzline covers York County, nonprofits, workforce and education. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at larryp@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @CPBJLarryP. Circle Larry Portzline on .

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