“Addressing the Needs of Individuals on the Autism Spectrum” was the topic for discussion at the Hershey All Things Diversity session held on May 8 at the Hershey Story Museum.

Nathaniel Reed Geyer and Dr. Nancy Patrick presented a program that emphasized the importance for a community to make a place for everyone to work and contribute.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. Autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States today, according to Autism Speaks, an organization founded in 2005 to assist with the needs of individuals with autism and their families through advocacy and support.

The Autism Speaks website explains, “There is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.” (www.autismspeaks.org)

“Several factors may influence the development of autism, and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and attention issues.”

“Indicators of autism usually appear by age 2 or 3. Some associated development delays can appear even earlier, and often, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Research shows that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism.”

Nathaniel Geyer was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as a child. He holds a Doctor of Public Health, a Masters in Epidemiology, and a Bachelor’s in Biology. His experience includes public health research in the areas of cancer, obesity, HIV, epilepsy, public health workforce, and Vitamin D ancestry, and he is currently in the process of publishing key manuscripts on his studies.

Despite Geyer’s high intelligence and vast education, he is underemployed. “National data indicates that the vast majority of adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed, with estimates ranging to as high as 90%.” (www.autismspeaks.org)

Dr. Nancy Patrick is a Professor of Special Education and Director of the Graduate Program in Education at Messiah College, and has extensive experience teaching Autism Spectrum Disorders and Assessment, and Instructional Strategies for Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Dr. Patrick told a story about a boy she knows who was given a preschool diagnosis of autism. He completed a Bachelor of Arts and was placed through an agency as a patient greeter in a psychiatric hospital. Because he struggled with anxiety, Dr. Patrick said, “The position tapped into all of his weaknesses and he had to leave the position. That was six years ago, and he has not reentered the workforce.”

Autism Speaks explains, “These poor outcomes are not due to an inability of people with autism to perform job tasks. We know many adults with ASDs who are demonstrating their competence in a wide variety of industries and at all ranks within businesses around the world. But for the vast majority, these job opportunities are not being made available to them.” The right match between job responsibilities and employee strengths with minor adaptations can benefit both the employer and employee, explained Dr. Patrick.

Geyer said that his method to learning was through trial and error. “If it doesn’t work, try something else”, he said. He feels that it’s ok to fail if you try and that it’s important to encourage children to work hard and to keep at it. He stressed the importance of encouragement from your family and mentors. He told the audience that he needed help with third grade math, but later advanced to calculus and organic chemistry. He said, “There’s hope at the end of the tunnel.”

Patrick and Geyer answered questions from the audience and the following advice was provided on how to address the needs of individuals on the Autism Spectrum:

“Treat people with kindness and dignity. Get to know one another.” “Reasonable accommodations should be given to everyone.” “Find similarities with others in life. It’s something to discuss and more forward.”
“As we get older, we recognize how little we know.” Autism is a social disability.”
”Try to provide a sensory-friendly and child-friendly environment. “We learn social rules as we are growing up. They are your rules and values, but how tight do you hold on to them?” “Step back, understand, and accept.”
“Realize there are differences. Do not judge too quickly.”
“Be an advocate for a child. Be a self-advocate.”
“Being chronically misunderstood results in chronic anxiety.”
“A valid response is an adaptive response.”
“Make decisions on content, not perception.”

Imagine a community that applies this advice to everyone we encounter. Look at a situation through someone else’s eyes and try to understand, relate, and provide the same response or reaction that you would want some to give to your child or someone who you love.

“We spend 84% of our life in adulthood. School is to teach children adult roles”, said Dr. Patrick. Being able to contribute and utilize your education and training is essential to your happiness. If you own a business or make hiring decisions and are interested in providing an opportunity for an individual on the autism spectrum, the Vista School, located in Hershey, provides adult services that foster employment relationships to help teens and adults with autism find a job they will love with employers that desire reliable, hard-working individuals. Visit the Vista School website https://www.vistaautismservices.org/employment-services/ to form an employer partnership and match your business with the candidate best suited to meet your needs.

Visit the Township’s YouTube page to see a recording of the “Addressing the Needs of Individuals on the Autism Spectrum” presentation.

The program is underwritten by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and College of Medicine, The Hershey Company, and Hershey Entertainment & Resorts.

Further sessions are being planned for the 2019–2020 Hershey All Things Diversity Series. See the schedule here.