Pam Staeudle was confident she had the information necessary to set her son Max on a successful path into adulthood.
Max was born with autism and received special education through the public school system. However, once he turned 21, he would age out and Staeudle would have to find the right program to keep his development on track.
“That 21 is like jumping off a cliff,” she said. “It was the scariest experience ever.”
She had a list of highly rated day programs, but soon discovered many of them weren’t designed to effectively transition Max to adult life. A crucial component, she said, was missing.
“A lot of them didn’t have a vocational piece, which means he’ll do arts and crafts all day but that won’t get him a future,” she said.
Max cycled through a number of programs over several years, but was routinely asked to leave each for acting out. Staeudle grew increasingly concerned for her son, so much so that she was forced to quit her job as a tech at the Union County Educational Commission to dedicate more time to finding a place that would accept — and nurture — Max.
After four long years of searching, Staeudle found Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), a program that provides vocational training to individuals with disabilities. JVS in East Orange and The Phoenix Center in Nutley (they are unaffiliated) are two programs that focus on providing persons with autism from ages 14-21 with work placement opportunities.
“My focus is working with people with disabilities and providing them with training to be job-ready,” said Hetal Narciso, director of vocational rehabilitation services for JVS.
New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the U.S.: Roughly 2.5 percent of children born in the state are diagnosed with autism, compared to the national average of 1.5 percent, according to Autism New Jersey.
These children are provided with support services as long as they’re within the age range for public schools, but transitioning them into the workforce isn’t always addressed by the system.
JVS focuses on individuals 14 and older; whereas, The Phoenix Center provides services for students aged 5 to 21. Roughly 80 percent of its students fall into the 14-21 age range.
Both organizations said the key to finding success is taking the time to discover a student’s talent rather than dwell on their limitations.
“We focus on their abilities instead of their disabilities,” said Julie Mower, executive director of The Phoenix Center.
Stauedle said Max had “noise issues,” where he would react strongly to specific noises such as babies crying or children laughing. These responses were what led many of the programs he had been in to suggest Max couldn’t hold a full-time job. Organizations like JVS and The Phoenix Center approach the situation differently.
“Your body is a sensory system, your feedback is normal. With a lot of our students, that process is broken at different levels,” said Laureen Protomastro, transition coordinator at The Phoenix Center. “You and I get nervous and we know it. We fidget, but it doesn’t work for them.”
Each organization has a “vocational room” where real-world job responsibilities are replicated in a classroom setting allowing staff to monitor which activities students are more interested in or the supports they need to succeed.
“We try to model as many jobs that we can that are out in the community,” said Jonathan Andolino, job developer for The Phoenix Center. “A lot of the time our students don’t tell us what they like or want to pursue as a career, so we might as well try everything.”
These jobs have ranged from stocking a general goods store, training as a cashier and preparing food at a restaurant. Most of the jobs that individuals with autism excel at involve a high amount of repetition, Mower said.
“Our students love preservation of sameness,” she said. “Statistically speaking, our students, if you teach them a skill they’re going to do that skill and do it really well.”
That “sameness” makes a set schedule preferable, and instructors and employers alike are eager to note the students tend to have superior attendance records and enjoy tasks that other staff members would otherwise avoid.
Some employers have even found that utilizing the students frees up their full-time staff to focus on higher-priority tasks. One such business, Kia dealership Nutley Auto, has worked with The Phoenix Center for the past six years.
“What happens when we have a student in our department is the manager is able to focus on more tasks involved in operating the business,” said Jim Russomano, owner/operating manager of Nutley Auto. “If [managers are] able to focus on tasks to drive revenue and raise money, they don’t have to spend time doing these other tasks.”
Russomano employs students in the parts section, we’re they’re tasked with auditing deliveries.
The Phoenix Center also works with drugstore chain Walgreens and Zinburger restaurants, while JVS has its own network of employers, including ShopRite supermarkets, Marshalls and Target department stores and AMC Theatres.
Both JVS and The Phoenix Center said the demand for their services has only increased over time.
“There will always be a need for special education,” Mower said. “One of my jobs is to make sure that we’re able to change with the changes. As things change, Phoenix will change.”
Today, Max Stauedle, now 26, continues to be part of the jobs program at JVS, with access to work opportunities in his local community. His mother has returned to work as a teacher for the Jewish Community Center in her hometown of Scotch Plains.
Pam Stauedle said Max’s two years with JVS have done more for him than any other program.
“I feel like they’ve given him the foundation he’s going to need,” she said.