Reposted from The Times Tribune
Published: April 4, 2016

JAKE DANNA STEVENS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Richard Morrison, right, who works on the food prep line, talks and jokes with his colleague Matt Purcell at Allied Services on Tuesday, March 22.
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Jake Danna Stevens / Staff Photographer Richard Morrison, right, who works on the food prep line, talks and jokes with his colleague Matt Purcell at Allied Services on Tuesday, March 22.

Three years ago, Richard Morrison refused to speak anywhere except at home.

Now, the 21-year-old Scranton man has a girlfriend and a full-time job in spite of an autism diagnosis that once cut him off from the world.

Mr. Morrison’s success is inspiring, but far from the norm.

Most people with autism never achieve that kind of independence, in part because the developmental disability can be severe. It’s also because many who have the potential for success fall through the cracks, often ending up institutionalized and forgotten.

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and organizations across the region that assist adults with autism are celebrating the success stories, which they say can be found in every person they help.

A 2012 study, funded in part by the organizations Autism Speaks and National Institute of Mental Health, found about 55 percent of people age 19 to 23 diagnosed with

an autism spectrum disorder were unemployed after high school. Only about 28 percent

sought higher education in a two-year school; less than half of that in a four-year school.

Only 9 percent attended any postsecondary vocational or technical training, the study found.

The public education system cuts off services for people with developmental disabilities when they reach age 21. So there’s a strong effort among educators and nonprofit groups to help before that public education umbrella collapses.

Vocational programs, like one at Allied Services in Scranton that helped Mr. Morrison crush his anxiety in social settings, can serve as a safety net.

Mr. Morrison graduated from West Scranton High School in 2013. His mother, Sue Morrison, took him for speech and cognitive therapy at Allied when he was a child. It was at her urging that he filled out a job application to work in Allied’s food services department when he finished high school.

At that point, he still didn’t care to speak in public, but his mom had faith that he could overcome his disability.

Allied offers job skills training through its community employment program, sheltered workshops for the most severe cases, and other programs.

Mr. Morrison applied online like anyone else would, and landed the job.

“I didn’t know what to do, what to expect. I didn’t think I was going to last this long,” he said. “I didn’t really talk to anybody, I would just sit there and not say a word. … I didn’t really care to talk.”

This month, he went from part-time to full-time, and his associates, as well as his boss and supervisor, say he is one of their most dependable teammates.

“He’s my favorite to work with, and that’s no lie,” said cook and supervisor Matt Purcell. “He doesn’t take breaks, ever. You have to tell him to sit down. He’s always on the move.”

In Lackawanna County, 905 people were diagnosed with autism and receive services, according to Pennsylvania Autism Census data from 2011, the most recent county-specific data available. That was up 174 percent from 2005, when only 330 were diagnosed. There were an estimated 215,000 county residents in 2011.

In Luzerne County, an estimated 1,161 were diagnosed, according to the same data. That’s a 134 percent increase from 2005 in the county of 321,000. Wyoming County, which has a population of 28,164, saw a much smaller increase in that time period, about 75 percent, with 105 diagnosed and receiving services in 2011.

Statewide, estimates show the frequency of autism diagnoses among adults has increased by 334 percent between 2005 and 2014, and it will continue to rise.

Census data offers a glimpse of how many people are affected by autism, said Jim Martin, vice president and chief operating officer of Friendship House, a nonprofit in Scranton that assists children with disabilities.

Autism, like intellectual disabilities in general, is broad and complex. Virtually no two cases are alike, he said, which makes tracking things like independence beyond the school years difficult.

On average, 13 percent of the diagnosed population in Northeast Pennsylvania is over age 21, according to the 2011 data. At that age, they must leave the public education system and the myriad resources at their disposal through public education funding.

Vocational training and therapy exist for adults. Allied Services has a number of programs that serve about 500 people through sheltered workshops for the most severe cases and community employment that helps people find competitive employment.

Most workers arrive at Allied following a referral from the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which has an office in Wilkes-Barre, said Miki Drutchal, community employment coordinator at Allied.

After he started with food services, Mr. Morrison’s boss realized he needed a little help learning to speak up about his own goals for employment. That’s when a vocational coach began working with him to help him find his voice. It was after vanquishing his anxiety that he expressed interest in a career path with food services.

“Working sometimes gives people an opportunity to interact with a more diverse group of people than they’re normally used to being around, or just people who aren’t family,” Ms. Drutchal said. “It can help them open up.”

Suzanne and John Joseph started David’s Coffee Shop in Wilkes-Barre’s Heights neighborhood in 2007, after their son, David, who has autism, graduated from G.A.R. High School. They realized David, who still lives at home, had zero chance for gainful employment.

“He just stayed in bed, wouldn’t get up, there was no reason to get up,” Mrs. Joseph said.

The coffee shop, open for breakfast and lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, has loyal customers who rave about its homemade soup and scones.

David, now 30, has a small apartment in the back where he spends most of his time browsing the Internet, his mother said, explaining he still gets anxious around people.

“He’ll come out, run the vacuum cleaner, wipe off tables,” she said. He prioritizes counting tips in the tip jar a few times a day.

Since its creation, the nonprofit coffee shop has opened its doors to children with autism around Luzerne County. School programs and the Luzerne Intermediate Unit send students on field trips to learn tasks like stocking cups and sugar packets and cleaning up after customers while earning wages.

“We have to start thinking outside the box with these kids,” Mrs. Joseph said, expressing her frustration that it seems too many people with autism enter adulthood having missed opportunities to develop essential skills.

Larry Danko, who owns Danko’s All American Fitness in Plains Twp., also opened his doors, working with people with autism to clean gym equipment and learn the feeling of a job well-done.

“We’ve done it for years,” Mr. Danko said. “We give them easy tasks, clean and stuff like that, and they do a very good job.”

A number of other businesses throughout the region have similar programs.

In Lackawanna County, the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit developed a number of programs with colleges. Its Students On-Campus Achieving Results program, or SOAR, was started about eight years ago on the Marywood University campus.

On Wednesday morning, five students sat in SOAR teacher Jack Kirby’s classroom tapping away diligently at calculators. They were completing a section on personal finance and learning how to calculate percentages to compare expenses to income, Mr. Kirby said.

Parents and guardians of kids with autism must be engaged for them to succeed, said Kristin Samsell, program coordinator and special education supervisor for the Northeast Intermediate Unit. Parents must begin to consider transition planning by age 14, but Mrs. Samsell said picking the exact vocational or postsecondary program is tough at that age because it’s unclear what other kinds of development could happen before high school ends.

Students age 18 to 21 must have some level of independence to be eligible for SOAR, she said. SOAR students get out among other students working around campus completing tasks that fit their ability — for example, working in the print shop, with the grounds crews or housekeeping.

Of the 22 SOAR graduates, Marywood has been able to keep in touch with 13 of them, said education professor Patricia Arter, Ed.D, who works with the program. Ten are gainfully employed, one volunteers regularly and two are unemployed she said.

The NEIU just this year started a similar program at Lackawanna College called the Turning Point Academy, which is for children with any diagnoses, not just autism. Through Turning Point, kids have a chance to work toward the college’s certificate programs and get job skills training.

Although each one needs a special education program catered to their specific needs, when they leave SOAR, most are able to step into a regular full-time or part-time job, and some can even live on their own, Mr. Kirby said.

“I like to say they have way more in common with us than they’re different,” he said.

Contact the writer:

joconnell@timesshamrock.com,

@jon_oc on Twitter

National Autism Awareness Month

Parents Loving Children Through Autism Foundation annual Autism Awareness Walk and 5K run will be Saturday, April 16, 11 a.m. at Nay Aug Park in Scranton. Registration for the walk begins at 9:30 a.m. For more information, visit www.plcta.org.

Light up the Night for Autism will be Saturday, April 16, from 7 to 10 p.m., in the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple, 420 N. Washington Ave., Scranton. Suggested $20 donation includes live entertainment by The Molly Pitcher Path, food and cash bar. Adult-only event. Proceeds benefit the Northeast Regional Autism Center at Friendship House. RSVP 570-342-8305 ext. 2102.

Employment help for people with disabilities: The state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation can help people with disabilities of all types, including autism, find the right kind of help get to work. To get started, contact the local office in Wilkes-Barre at 570-826-2011.