How many organizations provide vocational programs designed intentionally to reach young adults with autism and related challenges from underserved communities? According to a recent study, very, very few. But Urban Autism Solutions, a non-profit in Chicago, is one of them. UAS provides vocational programs to students with autism and related challenges from West Side Chicago public high schools.
A study from Mathematica found only two of 141 vocational programs for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities including autism identified through a literature review had the explicit aim of serving young adults from historically underserved communities, like Chicago’s West Side. Among programs that reported demographic data, white young adults accounted for 73 percent of program participants while Black young adults accounted for 21 percent, on average.
ABOVE: Some of the West Side Chicago public high school students UAS helped to secure jobs in competitive employment during the 2021-2022 school year.
“We created the UAS West Side Transition Academy specifically to provide supportive programming including job-readiness services to young adults with autism and related challenges from West Side Chicago public high school transition programs,” said Heather M. Tarczan, executive director of Urban Autism Solutions. “These students generally receive limited services in their schools compared to schools in wealthier neighborhoods.” UAS programming specifically aims to address both racial and demographic inequalities.
Approximately 90 percent of the students who come to the UAS Academy are from households with incomes below the federal poverty level and live in neighborhoods with some of the highest crime rates in Chicago. All the students are Asian, Black or Latino.
Programs that help young adults prepare for or obtain competitive employment are much needed. According to the A. J. Drexel Autism Institute, young adults with autism have the lowest rate of employment compared to their peers with other disabilities, with only four out of 10 working in competitive employment in their 20s.
“Having a job provides benefits that go beyond getting a paycheck,” says Julie Tracy, co-founder of Urban Autism Solutions. “Many students who don’t work after high school become isolated and stay at home. Working provides a sense of identity and connects students to the wider community.
In their literature review, the Mathematica researchers looked for papers published after 2011 that describe vocational programs, models or strategies for young adults ages 16 to 24 with intellectual and developmental challenges including autism in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand or Australia. They identified 141 programs.
The UAS vocational program is part of the UAS West Side Transition Academy. Students from West Side Chicago public high school transition programs (ages 16 – 22) come from their schools to the UAS Academy with their teachers and aides for a variety of specialized programming. Students participate in job internships, community integration, and receive services from licensed clinical social workers, speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists. At UAS’ Growing Solutions Farm, a 1.2-acre urban farm, students get real-life work experience as they develop skills that can be used at any job like following directions, working as a team and communicating effectively with supervisors. The UAS Academy, which opened in 2019, serves about 85 students annually.
While not every student who comes to the UAS Academy is or will be job-ready, for those who are, UAS helps them get jobs in competitive employment. The UAS jobs team helps students with their resumes, applications and the interview process. UAS also works alongside newly-employed students to address issues and ensure success. The team puts in between 20 and 100 hours per student.
“It’s not easy, but we put in the time and effort for our job-ready students because they have demonstrated work-related skills and want to work, to contribute to their families,” Tarczan says. “You spend the majority of your lifetime in adulthood and working is an important part of adulthood. We want to give job-ready students the ability to engage in competitive employment and be part of the wider community.”
Sarah Wissel, Marisa Shenk and Matt Rice, all from Mathematica, are the authors of the paper, Programs. Models and Strategies to Support Employment Outcomes of Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum, Mathematica, March 2022. The paper was prepared for the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the US Department of Labor.