Career Skills: Thompson Foundation for Autism
About 1% of the world’s population has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means more than 75 million people are impacted and face daily struggles. It is the mission of the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Missouri in Columbia to improve the lives of those affected by ASD and similar conditions through research, clinical services, training and education. The Thompson Foundation for Autism is an active partner in supporting the center’s initiatives.
Founded in 2005, the center offers easily accessible, comprehensive care for children and adults. “Our mission is expanding to include more services for young adults,” says Cortney Fish, program coordinator for training and education. One of the programs offered is STRIVE (Self-Determined Transition Readiness Through Individual Vocational Experiences), which focuses on employment skills for high school graduates between the ages of 18 and 30. “Research shows that employment and quality of life are closely tied, and for young adults with any disability, but especially autism, the outcomes often aren’t great,” Fish says. “These individuals are more than capable of working; they just need help developing the necessary skills.”
The program follows the university’s calendar and is offered over two semesters. In the first, the focus is on direct skill instruction. Participants meet with teachers three times a week for three-hour sessions. Over the course of the semester, they also shadow three to five different jobs on campus. “The focus is on building strengths that will be beneficial in the workplace like communication and time management,” Fish explains. University of Missouri students serve as peer mentors to help guide participants. That relationship continues into the second semester, when the career skills learned are given direct application. Participants interview for one of the jobs they observed and work for a set number of hours each week. By the end of the program, they have acquired around 300 hours of work experience.
The program’s unique approach is working, according to Fish. STRIVE graduates have a 100-percent employment rate, and the program’s positive outcomes also extend to employers. “They get qualified workers and often change their mindsets about hiring people with disabilities,” Fish says. “STRIVE is helping to break down negative stereotypes and preconceived notions.”
Lindsey Pulse completed the program and says it was beneficial for many reasons. “It was a really good experience,” she notes. “I got to see what university life is like, make new friends, and learn job skills and how to apply them.” She found working on interviewing and communication skills especially helpful because of her previous struggles with nerves while job hunting. “I think anyone who participates in the program really will strive to do their best in life,” Pulse says. “It will help them be the best they can be in any workplace.”
Services like the STRIVE program are possible thanks in part to the support of the Thompson Foundation. The nonprofit’s largest annual fundraiser is its Heroes Among Us gala. This year, the event is to be held Oct. 10 at the DoubleTree by Hilton-Chesterfield, and former St. Louis Blues enforcer Reed Low is honorary chair. The evening includes live and silent auctions, a travel raffle, wine and whiskey pulls, and a magic show by David Minkin.
The Thompson Foundation for Autism supports the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Its 13th annual Heroes Among Us dinner and auction is Oct. 10 at the Doubletree by Hilton-Chesterfield. Pictured on the cover: Reed Low, former St. Louis Blues enforcer and honorary chair. For more information about the event, call Jack Reis at 314.550.2888 or visit heroesamongusstl.info.
Cover design by Julie Streiler | Cover photo by Colin Miller of Strauss Peyton Photography
Pictured at top: Graduates of the STRIVE program
Photo courtesy of the Thompson Foundation for Autism