For Young Adults On Autism Spectrum, Jobs Program Opens Up New Dreams

By Rita Giordano
The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Project SEARCH prepares young adults on the autism spectrum for entry-level jobs that pay competitive wages. The workers fill real needs for employers seeking reliable help.

CHERRY HILL, N.J.

When Laini Sohn started her internship at Kennedy Health’s Cherry Hill campus last month, the 21-year-old seemed willing enough to work and learn. Still, her supervisor Carol Nilsen wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

“I didn’t know what she was capable of,” Nilsen said. “I gave her a task that should have taken 2 1/2 weeks.”

Sohn, though, didn’t know how long the data-entry assignment was supposed to take.

“She got it done in three days,” said Nilsen, still sounding surprised. “She just plugs away.”

Laini Sohn and her fellow interns are all on the autism spectrum. They are part of an international program that is opening employers’ eyes to what people with developmental disabilities can do.

Project SEARCH prepares workers for entry-level jobs that pay competitive wages because they fill real needs for employers seeking reliable help. Cofounder Erin Riehle helped start the program about 20 years ago when she was director of the emergency department at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Riehle needed to fill jobs that many people find boring, perform without enthusiasm, and often quit without much warning.

Project SEARCH sought to prepare people with disabilities to do these jobs and thrive in a workplace with people of all abilities. Since then, the program has been replicated at more than 300 sites in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

In one study, 61 percent of the developmentally disabled young adults who graduated from the program found positions at about $9.20 an hour for more than 24 hours a week. For graduates on the autism spectrum in the study, the employment rate was 53 percent, compared with about 33 percent for people on the spectrum who had not been in Project SEARCH. The more recent overall employment figure for Project SEARCH graduates is over 75 percent.

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