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Mar / Apr 2014



Joe Meholick


Helping Children with ASD Achieve a Working Lifestyle


What is Customized Employment?






In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we wanted to focus in on a topic that, at times, gets pushed to the back burner:  employment. 


In this newsletter, you will find helpful information about starting early with employment planning and how to customize employment.  We will also hear about an intern on the autism spectrum that has secured a terrific employment opportunity. 


Additionally, there are links to materials relevant to your work with individuals and families, including transition and employment tool kits. And, we are also offering a free webinar which is open to the public entitled "Exploring Employment."


Youth Advocate Programs hopes this information will be helpful as we celebrate diversity during this month. 


Joseph "Joe" Meholick

by Carla Benway


Most of us appreciate our computers when they work.  We appreciate even more those who can fix them when they don't!


Joseph "Joe" Meholick is one of those highly valued individuals who not only fixes computers, but enjoys himself in the process, even when it is a challenging issue without an easy or obvious resolution.


Joe's passion and interest have long been in diagnosing, updating and repairing computers, which is likely why he obtained a degree in Information Technology from Reading Area Community College. Despite the formal education, Joe believes that most of his knowledge comes from research and, frankly, learning through trial and error.

Joe is an intern in the IT department at Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP). He is also a YAP client.


Joe is on the Autism Spectrum and receives Pennsylvania Adult Autism Waiver Services through YAP's Berks County Program. YAP's model is grounded in building on individual strengths and passions. Through the assessment process, while staff learned about Joe's needs, Joe's interest in computers and employment was also discovered. Joe and his support staff worked with YAP's IT department to define a time-limited, goal-oriented internship opportunity that would benefit both Joe and YAP.


Within his internship, Joe is responsible for following daily work assignments from his supervisor and hands-on work with computers that includes updates, repairs and checks on security measures. Perhaps most importantly, Joe has daily opportunities to learn and strengthen his communication skills through interaction with his supervisor, his co-workers, program staff in person, on the phone and via email.

Joe's internship with YAP gives him with an opportunity to use his talent in a meaningful way while building his job resume. It also provides a natural opportunity to transfer and practice the social and independent living skills he is learning with his support staff.


During his recent performance evaluation, Joe received very positive feedback. His YAP supervisor Craig Green shared that Joe was fun to work, showed more patience than he has when repairing computers, and that he definitely "knows his stuff." As a recent example of Joe's tenacity and skill, Craig shared how Joe was able to resolve an issue that one of the programmers was struggling with for a few weeks.


Joe was thrilled with the feedback, particularly in the area of customer satisfaction, which intersects with the communication skills he has been working so hard with his support staff to improve. Joe does a lot of work outside of his internship to further learn and develop his skills: he has attended peer social groups; an employment support group; worked on his resume and applied for jobs at Career Link; and participated in a writing group at the Pagoda in Reading. Joe works with his support staff to identify those activities that will help him achieve his goals, and he participates in them both with his staff and independently.


Joe enjoys working with YAP, both as an intern and a client. He derives a sense of accomplishment and contribution by using his strengths in his internship. He also has the opportunity to practice patience, communication, independent work and life tasks through a normal life activity within his community.


Said State Developmental Disabilities Director Lori Burrus, "I have been in the field for 30 years and have seen and been a part of a lot of cool things, but again YAP's ability to walk the talk of its core principles in service delivery is amazing!"


helpHelping Children with ASD Achieve a Working Lifestyle
It's never too soon to start!
by Pat Amos 


Once upon a time and not so long ago, most children on the autism spectrum grew up in a dismal and anxious place where no one was encouraged to talk about the future. It was, their parents used to say, as if they lived on a flat earth: after 21 years, each little ship seemed doomed to sail alone off the edge.  


Fortunately, that spell is now broken and the flat geography has been transformed into a more well-rounded and welcoming horizon. People with ASD - regardless of the extent or nature of their challenges -- are now navigating their way into happy, fulfilling, inclusive adult lives. And the force behind this seismic shift is the new emphasis on jobs and a working lifestyle.


Just as the presence of students with autism in our schools -- thanks to the federal law passed in 1975 -- led to their recognition as learners and valued peers, the new emphasis on supporting people with ASD in the workforce is leading to their recognition as important assets to the business and civic lives of their communities.  


Rather than averting our eyes from a future we fear will be empty, it is time to start charting a course that will lead to the best possible employment outcomes for the children we parent or teach. Below are seven simple suggestions to steer by:

1. Start at the very beginning. A child is never too young to think and communicate about "what you want to be when you grow up." We use books and videos to explore career possibilities with "neurotypical" children; we must start including children with disabilities in those positive expectations and plans.


2. Make use of the many ways growing children with ASD can access typical paths to employment. From an early age, assign children specific jobs in the home and the classroom, and give positive feedback on work well done. Assure that the child with ASD will be (in the words of one self-advocate) "in the box marked 'give,' and not always in the box marked 'take'." By early adolescence, children can be enjoying informal paid jobs, such as helping neighbors with yard work or caring for a vacationing friend's pet. As a teen, experience with part-time jobs afterschool or on weekends becomes a natural way to hone communication and social skills and an important path to job success after graduation.   Volunteerism is great at any age, but as the child grows up it should be seen as an important adjunct to, and not a substitute for, paid work. Having an economic stake in one's community teaches lessons, raises social status, and opens doors in ways that are unique to wage earners.


3. Be alert to the job possibilities found in "preferred interests." Preferred interests, often called "passionate interests," are those one or two intensely compelling topics or activities which motivate a person with ASD and help them make sense of the world. Actual examples are as various as bus schedules, helicopters, streetlights, storage tanks, spiders, and cattle chutes. Discovering and supporting these interests is very important, from the earliest ages. No matter how unique or unusual a preferred interest may be, it will always lend itself to some of these job-related exploratory questions: Where and how is it designed, developed or made? Who uses it, for what purpose? How is it inspected, licensed, or maintained? How is it transported? How is it updated, fixed, renewed, recycled, or replaced? How is it bought or sold? How do people advertise or communicate about it? Does anyone collect, exhibit, or archive it? Do people teach and learn about it? Are products (e.g. books, videos, t-shirts, toys) created for those who find it interesting? Where are you most likely to encounter it or encounter those related products? How are paperwork or records about it kept? What do the people engaged in any of the above activities need in order to do their jobs properly?   The important thing to remember is that "nothing comes from nothing," so every preferred interest will connect to venues and activities that could potentially yield a highly motivating job with very personal appeal.  


4. Plan ahead for postsecondary education, just as you would for any child.   For most jobs nowadays, it is a big advantage to have some level of postsecondary education, whether from a community college, 4-year college, or job training and certification program. If you are saving money and looking into student loans and Pell grants for your nondisabled child(ren), do the same for the child with autism or intellectual disability. The Postsecondary Education Act of 2007 maintains their rights to a higher education, whether as a degree-seeking student or a nontraditional student who will meet personal learning goals without seeking course credits. Research has shown that the age-appropriate experience of participating in higher education pays off for ALL students in better and more durable employment opportunities.  


5. Build IEPs around students' hopes and dreams for the future. If we start early in life to foster the components of a working lifestyle, our students' IEPs will become more positive and focused. We will always hold ourselves accountable to the ultimate question of where we are going and how best to get there, rather than pursuing an endless "remediation of deficits" with no larger game plan in mind. Currently Pennsylvania students are not required to have a Transition Plan in the IEP until age 14; other states follow the federal mandate of age 16. Both ages are much too late. Students, their families, and their teachers should write IEP goals that respond to the definite prospect of employment; IEPs should also develop and specify in detail the accommodations that allow a student to perform optimally, as well as the communication needs, systems, and supports that the student can use across all settings of job and community. This should begin not at some arbitrary "transition age," but with the very first IEP developed for and with each student.


6. Rethink the prevocational or "readiness" model, and familiarize yourself with successful modern practices. For many years, it was assumed that students with disabilities had to demonstrate competence in a roster of so-called "prevocational" activities before they could be considered for a "real" job. Those with the most severe disabilities tended to be placed into "day treatment programs" where little happened; those thought to have less severe challenges went into segregated sheltered workshops where they did contract work or even invented "busy work" at subminimum wages. There was seldom any movement out of these places, and most people sent there spent a lifetime "getting ready to get ready" for a real job that never materialized. Vast improvements to this situation were pioneered through "supported employment," which emphasized the role of support staff, job accommodations, and learning by doing, and more recently of "customized employment," which emphasizes a personalized process of discovering sources of motivation and strength, followed by careful tailoring of job responsibilities to establish goodness of fit between an employer's needs and what the employee brings. By learning more about these modern practices you can help your child or student move forward rather than relive the mistakes of the past.


7. Talk up and model the wide range of benefits that flow from employment and a working lifestyle. Sometimes we focus children's attention on the paycheck to the exclusion of many other vital reasons why we work. Children need to see and hear positive accounts of job satisfaction from the adults who are their role models, to be taught to take pride in having "economic clout" and making meaningful spending choices, to look forward to learning new skills and advancing in their work as time goes by, to realize that the friendships and networks developed on the job can become important parts of their daily lives, to participate in civic-minded activities their employer may organize, and to enjoy the respect and dignity that they earn along with their paycheck.   In short, they need to be included from the start in a culture that celebrates and organizes itself around the importance of a working lifestyle.

customWhat is Customized Employment?  

Successful new approaches to enjoying "a working lifestyle"

by Pat Amos 


These days you can customize almost anything, from your t-shirt to your business cards, your car, your checking account, or even the "sleep number" on your mattress. But how on earth do you customize a person's employment? Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. heard this question many times as staff geared up to serve increasing numbers of adults with autism and other disabilities through this promising new approach. Customized employment, a term that has come into increasing use since the early 2000s, offers both a way to tailor the job search and a way to tailor the job itself to the needs of the person with a disability and the needs of the prospective employer. It emphasizes "goodness of fit" between job description and what the incoming employee brings, to create a job niche that is efficient and likely to be durable even in the face of economic stress.


To see how and why customized employment represents a step forward, it is helpful to consider how practices in the disability field have evolved. People with disabilities used to be automatically relegated to "day programs" (which did not involve a job) or to sheltered workshops where subminimum wages (often less than a dollar a day) were paid for piecework such as packaging items.   These settings were congregate, segregated, and generally represented "the end of the line": clients had little opportunity to move out or move on. "Supported employment," a breakthrough approach in its time, was intended to demonstrate that these underutilized or potential workers could in fact do well in real jobs if provided adequate accommodations and on-site support. Thanks to supported employment, people with disabilities who had spent their days in isolation and boredom found themselves part of a company team, having lunch with co-workers and admiring the numbers on their paycheck. Sadly, however, in many places supported employment came to be offered only to those whose support needs were perceived as less complex, while the day programs and workshops operated as before.  


Customized employment evolved out of these encouraging but sometimes frustratingly narrow experiences with supported employment, improving on that approach by rethinking two areas in which prospective workers seemed to get stuck. First, too much of the employment planning process seemed to be taken up by aptitude testing and the attempt to prescribe a "job match" on that basis. Many of us may have taken such tests at the urging of our school guidance counselor, and been amused to find that, in theory, we had an aptitude for a job we would never in a million years want to do. Then again, many of us chose a college major based on what we knew we were good at and loved, only to find our true calling in some totally unrelated field. The shortcomings of aptitude testing are much the same for people with disabilities, with added complications resulting from unsolved or neglected communication needs and a lack of serious attention to employment aspirations during the school years.   Customized employment counteracts the job match problem with a highly individualized process called "discovery" which puts testing into the background, working instead with the person, his or her family, friends, and allies, to explore job possibilities in the community. Anyone who has received services from Youth Advocate Programs knows the central importance that is placed on identifying and participating in a client's "preferred interests"; "discovery" continues that process into the realm of employment.


The second set of refinements that distinguish customized from supported employment involve the nature or requirements of the job itself. Supported employment could sometimes feel like putting a round peg in a square hole, or vice versa, with the support person "filling in" the parts of that assembly that did not quite fit (and making any prospect of "fading back" more difficult). It was assumed that standard job descriptions, as found in a newspaper ad or employment office, had to be met as written, all or nothing. But suppose they were actually open to some negotiation-- that is, to customization?   For example, suppose we have a young man who we discover is passionately interested in cars. In exploring local places where cars are a focus, we find a repair shop where the mechanic tells us he is expected to enter bills and inventory into the computer at the end of each day. He says he's no good at it, and we see his grease-smudged paperwork, but the young man is fast and accurate with a computer. We could approach the business owner to customize a job that would allow him to take over these inputs at the end of each day, while the mechanic gets back to his much more lucrative work on engines.


In fact, a few years ago a report by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment announced that for every dollar spent customizing a job, the business averaged $3.60 in returns! Everyone wins, and the young man gets to check out a new collection of cars every day. The process by which his job would be created is formally known as "task reassignment," because some of the job tasks of existing workers are reassigned to a new employee. This reassignment allows the original worker to focus on key job functions, while other duties are officially reassigned to a newly created position. It may also happen that a position is "carved out" from a pre-existing job description, requiring some but not all of the original duties. Another possibility is "job sharing," in which two job seekers with different but complementary skills offer to split one open position. Last but not least, many people with disabilities are finding that entrepreneurship - creating one's own business - is more possible than they thought. People with autism and other developmental disabilities are marketing art, photography, jewelry and other items via ecommerce and local businesses; are establishing small mobile businesses such as vending water bottles at outdoor events, pet-sitting for traveling homeowners, or consulting on accessibility issues; and much more.   With appropriate benefits counseling, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and other resources can help underwrite, and do not argue against, the development of entrepreneurship and other forms of customized employment.  


Youth Advocate Programs is finding the customized employment model to be especially effective in turning the fast-changing needs and technologies of the new economy to the benefit of the people we serve. It also creates the expectation that we will honor and be guided by preferred interests; emphasize communication across all settings; individualize our processes and pathways to employment; and foster inclusion, age-appropriate activities, and self-determination across the lifespan.    

Programming Hope - A documentary about employment for adults on the autism spectrum
Programming Hope -
A documentary about employment for adults on the autism spectrum


4/9 @ 4pm


4/22 @ 6:30pm


4/23 @ 9:30am

The goal of this training is for parents, teachers, and potential employers to explore and appreciate the growing array of employment possibilities available to adults with autism, and recognize the roles they can play in helping people with autism realize their job potential.
This training is available to both YAP employees and external audiences.
Go to to register. 


The information and points of view contained in this newsletter are intended only to stimulate interest about topics of possibly shared concern.  Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. ("YAP") does not represent or endorse the accuracy, completeness, timeliness or reliability of any information contained in, linked, or otherwise accessed through this newsletter.  This newsletter does not contain  medical advice and YAP accepts no responsibility for any errors (or omissions) contained in this newsletter.