Greater Victoria teens with autism get boost in job hunt

New vocational assessment program aims to fill gap between B.C. government youth and adult autism support

Occupational therapist Margherita Jess launched the VITAL program earlier this year to helps teens with autism transition into the job market.

Matthew Schultz, like most of his high school peers, just wants a job, a driver’s licence and a lot more independence.

But unlike most 16 year olds, Matthew’s autism means the journey to his dream job – as a chef in a steakhouse, ideally – will require much more than persistent résumé canvassing at local restaurants.

“He’s keen to get out into the workplace, but that’s almost impossible,” says Matthew’s dad, Mike, a Saanich resident and federal government employee.

The Schultz family is well aware of the difficulties that teens with autism encounter as they “age out” of supportive funding – $6,000 annually – provided by the B.C. Ministry of Child and Family Development.

But it wasn’t until last September, when Mike and his partner, Barb, caught wind of a new, locally based vocational program for autistic teens that the family was able to access a desperately needed resource.

The Vocational Independence and Transition to Adult Life (VITAL) program is the brainchild of Margherita Jess, a Victoria-based occupational therapist.  The program aims to bridge the gap in support between teenage student years and adult working life for some of the 265 diagnosed autistic teens between ages 14 and 18 currently living in the Capital Region.

“I was getting a lot of clients with kids who were 18, and a lot of parents were going, ‘Oh my gosh, funding ends. Kids are finishing school: Help,’” Jess said.

Jess then went about building a program framework then selected a team that includes a psychologist, social worker and behavioural aide.

“I purposefully picked those people because they’ve seen what happens when supports aren’t in place in the teen years,” Jess said.

Employment rates for adults with autism are typically very low. Only 30 per cent of autistic adults are steadily employed, compared to an average of 80 per cent with other developmental disabilities.

The starting point for assessing a teen’s needs and skills is a vocational assessment, which  can normally cost between $2,500 to $6,000 alone, Jess said.

“To ask a family to spend that whole year of budget on one assessment never made any sense,” said Jess, a Saanich resident. “What we did was really pare down the assessment to where it’s accessible and vocation-focused.”

Once a psychologist report is completed, Jess then gets to work on a full sensory profile: simple acts like working with hand tools, handling small amounts of cash and filing documents are completed so Jess can better understand the strengths and weaknesses of each client.

“Basic, really functional things they need to do in the workplace,” she said.

Matthew, now in the early stages of the VITAL program, said he’s not enthralled with some of the more monotonous actions like lifting weights, but he is looking forward to his first voluntary job placement in Country Grocer’s produce department later this month.

“I’ve learned I’m strong,” he says.

(Below: Matthew Schultz, centre, with his parents Mike and Barb outside their Sananich home.)

The task of finding local employers willing to take on autistic teens for short-term jobs falls on Jess – at least for now.

Community living BC is the provincial Crown agency that funds supports and services for adults with developmental disabilities. Only 79 people on the South Island and 621 people across B.C. with autism spectrum disorder are supported through the organization’s Personalized Support Initiative, which focuses on the most severe cases of autism and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. But a far greater number of autistic adults access CLBC’s and WorkBC’s employment supports.

In Oct. 2013, Community Living BC launched the Community Action Employment Plan, a three-year program with an ambitious goal of assisting in employment for 1,200 more people with developmental disabilities across the province (including some adults with autism).

While Greater Victoria wasn’t selected, the Central and Upper Island is included as an employment pilot area. Initial reports from participating employers in that region reveal about 60 jobs have been created on the Island in the past year, though more jobs are expected, says CEO Seonag Macrae.

“A lot of what we’re trying to do is switch the culture about individuals and their ability to contribute to the working environment,” says Macrae, who took the helm of CLBC in August and has 30 years of experience in health care as a nurse, educator and senior social services administrator.

CLBC does some work with autistic adults to prepare them for the workforce, but its strength early on appears to be an ability to get employers on board with employment initiatives.

Home Depot, Walmart, Target, Safeway, Tim Hortons, Telus, Shoppers Drug Mart and Mount Washington are some of the employers already working on employing adults with developmental disabilities on Vancouver Island, Macrae says.

“We have people employed in landscaping, as farm hands, in maintenance and dish washing or working at retail outlets. One man spent the summer fighting fires in the Interior,” she says.

Barb and Mike Schultz aren’t newcomers to the difficulties in accessing autism support in Greater Victoria – Matthew’s older brother is also autistic. The couple don’t expect the government to shoulder the entire financial burden to support their kids, but they stress youth-to-adult transitional supports are still lacking.

“The gap at that age is what my wife and I have actually seen,” Mike says. “There are sometimes years because of the wait lists where you get no support whatsoever.”

(The CLBC wasn’t able to provide wait times for adults with autism who apply for funding under the Personalized Supports Initiative.)

Jess’ VITAL program isn’t cheap, Mike says, but it fills a need and is fortunately covered in part by the family’s insurance plan.

“Most of these kids can’t work 40 hours a week, but the fact of the matter is there’s an obligation in the community as a whole to support them,” he says.

Jess anticipates a day when transitional supports for youth with autism are more readily funded by government and more readily embraced by employers.

“All these kids have to make it into society,” she says. “It seems so unfortunate all of them will function at a high school environment, then get into a job and have it fail. … To get these guys into a vein where they can use skills they have, with educated employers, that’s the goal.”

editor@saanichnews.com

DID YOU KNOW?

Jess will be holding an Employer Information Night called “Supporting and Best Utilizing an Employee with Autism” on Jan. 15. To get involved, see thevitalprogram.ca for more information.