New program addresses barriers faced by graduating students with social disabilities

Transitioning for Life to connect Mt. A students and disability services with wider community

For some graduates, finding employment and means for independent living are more challenging than for others. Employers often emphasize strong communication skills, which can create barriers for job-seekers with social disabilities.

This barrier, among others, was pointed out by Margaret Tusz-King, the executive director of Open Sky Co-operative, at a workshop for their volunteers. Located in Middle Sackville on an 11-acre farm, the co-operative is modelled after European care farms and provides residence and vocational and skills training for adults who face social barriers due to autism spectrum disorder and other social disabilities.

Tusz-King often describes the post-graduation challenges that adults on the autism spectrum face as falling off a cliff. In a press release this April she said, “Students have often fallen off the cliff at the end of high school, with huge gaps and no clear sign posts between where they are and how and where they want to be employed or living as adults.”

Several years ago, the co-operative began having conversations with Mount Allison and Tantramar Regional High School to connect and build on their existing programs to help students avoid falling off these cliffs. Called Transitioning for Life, the program is set to begin this fall and will offer functional skills and social skills–building programming to assist students’ transition into employment and independent living situations.

“A lot of the struggle in finding employment is around the social aspects in finding employment,” said Anne Comfort, the director of the Meighen Centre, which provides services and accommodations to Mt. A students with disabilities. “So by helping to build on those skills we hope that the employment will come.”

The program will connect university and high school participants with peer mentors recruited from Mt. A’s student body and the Meighen Centre. As volunteers, peer mentors will receive training and participate in social activities at the high school and University as well as social dinners at Open Sky.

The program emerged from the ideas of Jocelyn Young, the resource teacher at Tantramar High. She noticed how some students who had excelled academically were still living at home and not finding volunteer or employment opportunities after graduation.

“Everything we were doing was not really sustainable,” Young said, referring to the programs already on offer at the high school. “Because while we were working on these things here, [the students] are still graduating and not doing anything.”

One in 66 Canadian youths between the ages of five and 17 are on the autism spectrum, according to the Public Health Agency’s most recent report. The number of youth on the autism spectrum has been rising, although the reasons for this are unclear.

At Tantramar High today, about 65 students are on personalized plans, including students with autism and ADHD. Young believes all of these students could benefit from the program. At the University, about 12 students a year have diagnoses on the autism spectrum, particularly Aspergers, according to Comfort.

The overall hope for the program is that “when we graduate our students we’re not just seeing them go home, because that’s what happens now – they go home,” Comfort said. “I hope that through this they build those skills so that they’re going to work, or that they’re living alone, or are going to graduate programs.”

Transitioning for Life is funded by a $38,000 grant from Autism Speaks Canada (ASC), a charity affiliated with the controversial US-based Autism Speaks. However, most of the labour and resources involved with the program (approximated at $150,000) will be delivered in kind from Open Sky’s program coordinator Jennifer Longpre, Tusz-King, the resource department at Tantramar and the Meighen Centre. Open Sky is not affiliated with Autism Speaks nor Autism Speaks Canada.

Transitioning for Life will be offered through the Meighen Centre at the University and the resource department at the high school. Eligible participants include students who are on the autism spectrum, experience social anxieties or other social barriers, and see themselves benefitting from the program. No documentation is necessary to participate and programming is free.

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