Picture the average 19-year-old: working part time, going to school and figuring out how to manage responsibilities along the way.
In many aspects Parker, a volunteer and patient at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, is like those 19-year-olds. However, as a teen on the autism spectrum, the way he relates to the world can be a bit different from his peers.
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have their own unique strengths and differences. They may have difficulties with social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, which adds an extra dimension to the challenges all young adults face when joining the workforce.
Each year in the United States, about 50,000 teens lose access to school-based autism services as they age out of the system. When looking at employment statistics, there is less representation of people on the autism spectrum compared to those with other special health care needs, signaling a disconnect between graduating high school and going on to higher education or a job.
For Parker and his family, this was an impending reality when he turned 16. At the time, there were few transition services in the area for teens with ASD and in a few short years he would be facing the adult world. Introducing autistic teens to real life work environments early on typically results in better outcomes, which meant time was of the essence for Parker. Concerned for his future, Parker’s mom, Denise, expressed her worries to staff at the Autism Center at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
“While teens on the spectrum would qualify for vocational rehabilitation services, those services are typically only offered upon graduation. The concern for students with ASD isn't so much that they cannot find employment, but that it takes a long time with much repetition and extended training to master skills,” Denise explains. “For that reason, it was my very strong desire to start Parker early and there was nothing available. I wanted him job-ready by the time he finished high school.”
The need for a program that could help teens with ASD learn essential skills was clear. From that need, an idea was born: Maybe kids such as Parker could volunteer at the hospital and gain work readiness skills in an atmosphere that was safe and supportive.
To turn that idea into a viable program, the Autism Center joined forces with other departments at Johns Hopkins All Children’s. With volunteer resources and rehabilitation services on board, the planning began.
“The Autism Center was posed with the question of “What are we doing to prepare these kids for the next step?” explains Ranetta Sumner, volunteer coordinator at Johns Hopkins All Children’s. “The A+ Volunteer Program Committee came together to plan, organize and implement the program.” After a year of planning the team had its answer and the A+ Volunteer Program was ready for roll-out.
In October 2014, Parker became the first student in the program. Once a week he would make his way to Johns Hopkins All Children’s to help in the Autism Center office. Parker’s responsibilities included sanitizing toys, filing paperwork, gathering supplies and other office tasks–including work essentials such as remembering his ID badge, clocking in and out and arranging transportation.
The difference volunteering has made is noticeable. Just ask people who know Parker, and they’ll tell you how he’s more independent, can keep a conversation going and will ask questions and be engaged in conversations.
In addition to learning job skills, Parker has learned how to manage a multitude of essential tasks from ordering and paying for food in the cafeteria, to finding the family car in the parking garage, shopping in the gift shop and problem solving when a cellphone is out of battery. He also has learned to use Pinellas County’s Demand Response Transportation (DART) cab services and can advocate for himself when something goes awry with the cab or on campus.
“From my perspective as a parent, I can tell you that his ability to navigate the campus independently has translated to an ability to assist me while at the infusion center with his brother, as well as given him experience in navigating the broader community,” Denise adds. “This opportunity at John’s Hopkins All Children’s has given Parker such a confidence to manage situations he is anxious about.”
Parker now has a part-time office job at a law firm where he is able to use the skills learned as a volunteer to be successful at work. He is also still involved in the A+ Volunteer Program, assisting staff once a month under the official title of “junior mentor.”
Today the A+ Volunteer Program serves as a resource for 16- to 18-year-olds who are not yet diploma ready, and therefore are not candidates for other programs. Each volunteer is paired with a college student mentor or hospital volunteer who helps guide them through their tasks. The goal is to transition each teen to the young adult world of higher education, paid employment, or gain entry to a general volunteer position after six months.
So far, four teens have participated, collectively logging more than 300 hours–around 200 of those hours are Parker’s. A new volunteer will soon be joining and the team has plans to expand volunteer assignments to other areas on campus.
Parker will be graduating from the A+ Volunteer Program in June, however he has left a profound impact. His advice for future volunteers: “You need to have dedication, discipline, a can-do attitude and strength.” Skills not only necessary for success as a volunteer, but for every journey in life.