Autistic youth find job success at Bon Secours St. Mary's

October 15, 2011

Program yields data for study on autism and work


Kayln Hutson, 21, has autism spectrum disorder, a speech impairment and a newly minted diploma from Hermitage High School in Henrico County, Va.

She also has something many other recent high school grads these days do not — a full-time job. She works as a surgical technician in the main operating room at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond, Va.

Hutson says her employment there, the result of a nine-month internship experience, has "changed my world — a lot!"

She is one of 13 Richmond-area students with autism, who worked as interns at St. Mary's during the 2010-2011 school year as part of a job transitions program called Project Search. The program at St. Mary's is proving to be beneficial for the students, the hospital and other partnering organizations involved with the effort.

A collaborative effort
Project Search is an immersion employment training model for young adults with disabilities who are entering the mainstream workforce. The model was created and is licensed by Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. St. Mary's is one of more than 150 Project Search sites across the U.S. and five other countries — Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Spain. The programs enroll people with a variety of disabilities.

The Project Search internship program at St. Mary's is connected with an ongoing five-year study being conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University that is funded through the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. The study will examine employment outcomes for students with autism spectrum disorder. Study participants are divided into one of two vocational training tracts – one school-based and the other tied to the community-based Project Search program.

In Richmond, Project Search is a collaborative effort between Virginia Commonwealth, the Henrico County Public Schools, the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services and St. Mary's.

Jennifer Todd McDonough, associate director at Virginia Commonwealth, said the university's study is the only research tied to a Project Search endeavor that is zeroing in on the best methods for helping students with autism orient to the workplace.

McDonough hopes the results of the study will help address the needs of a rapidly growing segment of society. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorder is the most prevalent developmental disorder, affecting one in 110 children nationally (one out of 70 boys, and one out of 315 girls). The condition is marked by mild to severe difficulties in communication, social skills and behavior. With no known cause or cure, autism affects 1.5 million Americans.

One job site, many opportunities
In 2008, when Virginia Commonwealth received its grant to study employment pathways for students with autism, McDonough turned to Peter Bernard, chief executive of Bon Secours Virginia, to ask for his help in recruiting St. Mary's as a host business for Project Search. Bon Secours Virginia is the regional parent of St. Mary's. Nationally, the majority of Project Search internships are in hospitals; they offer a myriad of jobs, from clerical and food service positions to patient-related services, which teach skills participants can transfer to other community settings.

"Mr. Bernard's support, from the very beginning of our study, was unwavering," says McDonough. He emphasizes that Bon Secours lives its mission — to be good help to those in need.

Opening doors
Bernard turned responsibility for the implementation of Project Search over to Wes Thiss, director of environmental services at St. Mary's. While McDonough interviewed incoming seniors at Henrico County Public Schools who were candidates for inclusion in the program, Thiss conducted management forums to discuss Project Search's goals with hospital staff. He found on-site classroom space and supplies so that, when the program started in 2009, Kathy Liamidis, a Henrico County Schools teacher, could instruct the student interns at the hospital.

From the program's inception, Liamidis has met with students daily to cover work-related curriculum as well as to debrief them on interactions with supervisors and coworkers to help build social skills and improve job performance.

Thiss says of the preparations, "At first I felt a little like Klinger from the TV show 'M*A*S*H,' scurrying around stocking supplies, getting uniforms and badges and helping with orientation. But the staff's positive response to the interns made everything worthwhile," he says.

Hands-on experience
As students were accepted into the program and study, they were randomized into either a school setting — which included seven hours of work experience a week — or Project Search, where they are on the job from 9:30 a.m. until 2:15 p.m. daily. Project Search students spend their entire senior year involved in three, 10- to 12-week unpaid internships at St. Mary's. Their assignments are based upon their interests and abilities.

In Hutson's case, that translated into stints in ambulatory services, the central sterile department and the main operating room. In ambulatory services, she separated and organized instruments based on the type of surgical tray, then wrapped them accordingly. Her duties in the central sterile department included scanning, bagging and sealing instruments. And in the operating room, she stocked supplies and linens and made deliveries.

Another participant, Annie Fitzgerald, who has Down syndrome as well as autism, spent time sterilizing equipment in the neonatal intensive care unit, preparing rooms for new patients in the rehabilitative medicine department, and at her favorite task — folding blankets and onesies and collating materials for breast-feeding packets for mother and infant services. Other students had assignments ranging from data entry and mail delivery to setting up isolation carts and pulling expired drugs in the inpatient pharmacy.

Gauging results
At the end of the 2010-2011 school year, McDonough compared how the school-based and community-based students had fared. Without exception, the Project Search participants had more success in improving both their social skills and job prospects. St. Mary's offered positions to all 13 students who had interned at the hospital in 2010-2011; none of their peers in the school-based program were employed at that point.

"The students were treated as employees from day one. We expected competence from them, and they rose to the challenge," says McDonough. "Now they are receiving reviews and experiencing increases in both work hours and salaries."

Students and their families could not be happier with the outcome.

"We feel exceptionally fortunate to have been a part of this," says Fitzgerald's mother, Tericia Leavitt. "It has given Annie such self-esteem and purpose.

"When she got her first paycheck, she was so excited — she worked hard to earn her position in mother and infant services, and it is really meaningful to her," says Leavitt.

Adds Chris Ingram, Hutson's stepfather, "We always knew Kayln was gregarious and a free spirit, but we didn't see many prospects for her in the workday world. Now she looks forward to every single day she spends in the operating room at the hospital, not only for the job she performs, but also for the friends she has made there. It has really broadened her horizons."

In-demand workers
As much as Project Search has helped its participants, Thiss insists it has improved the work culture at the hospital even more.

"There has been a real paradigm shift in attitude among the staff. At first, people were tentative about working alongside others with disabilities. Now they completely embrace the diversity," says Thiss.

"Kayln's enthusiasm for her job was so infectious that two departments fought over which would have the privilege of hiring her," says Thiss. "And in Annie's case, a NICU doctor told me if she weren't hired, he would personally pay her salary for one year.

"The Project Search students have made Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital a happier, more welcoming place," he adds. "Now we are all looking forward to working with the class of 2011-2012," who already are learning the ropes as interns.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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