Action for Autism: SARRC, Valley college helping autistic kids get ahead

Mar 30, 2016, 5:00 AM | Updated: Mar 31, 2016, 8:33 am

Ian McCoy raises his hand while participating in First Place, a partnership between the Southwest A...

Ian McCoy raises his hand while participating in First Place, a partnership between the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center and Gateway Community College. (KTAR Photo/Holliday Moore)

(KTAR Photo/Holliday Moore)

LISTEN: Action for Autism: Valley college helps young adults live independently

PHOENIX — Over the last two decades, the words autism and Asperger’s are coming out of the dark, thanks in part to public education by the Southwest Research & Resource Center in Phoenix.

Listen long enough to a group of high school parents and you might hear one or two say, “My son or daughter is on the spectrum.”

The word autism, however, is often still missing from the sentence and then a qualifier frequently follows it — “He/She is high-functioning.”

Janet Kirwan, a SARRC employee, hears it often working as the center’s family resource specialist. Having raised a child with autism, who is now in his mid 20s, she warned parents not to confuse academic intellect with intelligence.

In her British accent, she will tell parents, “Intellect is knowing a tomato is a fruit,” and then she continues pointedly, “Intelligence is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”

She explained the disconnect that often follows a child with autism into their adult years when parents and teachers unwittingly ignore their need for socializing and personal responsibilities.

Regularly, the high-functioning 18-year-old appears to have all the academic information.

“They’re smarter than a tack, but they have no way of actually implementing the information they have to complete a task, do a job, or carry on a social relationship,” Kirwan said.

Enter First Place Transition Academy, operated by SARRC. It’s a 2-year transition program for adults with autism to learn independent living and life skills.

SARRC and GateWay Community College partnered to allow adults with autism to experience life and attend classes on a college campus. Through the partnership, students can pursue a non-credit certificate in Independent Living Skills and Career Development.

GateWay Community College Counseling Director Frank Zamora oversees the innovative project, which is the first of its kind in Arizona. When he first heard about it more than two years ago, “I thought, ‘What a great opportunity, not just for the college, but the community itself!’”

Right now, there are eight students in the First Place program. Ian McCoy, 21, is among the students learning how to write personal checks with SARRC Clinician and First Place Transition Academy Instructor Brad Herron-Valenzuela.

When asked in class, “What would be the one thing we would still write checks for?” Ian promptly answered, “Either rent, alternate payment, and if you don’t have cash or card on you.”

Another student added “delayed payment,” to the list.

“(McCoy) came into the program with some terrific skills,” Herron-Valenzuela noted.

One year ago, Herron-Valenzuela was working independently as a driver.

“I was living with my parents in Scottsdale,” McCoy explained with a matter-of-fact cadence. “I felt captive, not just because of restrictions, but over-supervision.”

Admittedly, he said he could drive a car, but not much else on his own. That changed when his parents enrolled him in the Transition Academy last April.

“I am learning how to eat healthy, cook for myself,” he said proudly. “I am also learning how to budget and determine a want versus a need.”

They are all lessons McCoy said he wished he’d learned before moving out and becoming a roommate.

He and his classmates are paired off as roommates and live down the road from GateWay. They all take the light rail to and from campus and public transportation to and from their individual jobs.

“I have to get up at least at 5 a.m. and catch the bus by 6,” McCoy said.

For 11 months, he has taken a 45-minute ride to his job in Phoenix.

That sense of responsibility and ownership is the goal for every student in the Transition Academy program.

“We want them to be integrated, employed, and able to access public transportation in their community,” Herron-Valenzuela, adding whether that’s here in Phoenix or living in another state.

“I’m humbled with how awesome this program is and can be,” beamed Zamora, who credited GateWay’s positive attitude toward the Transition Academy students since the program’s inception.  “It comes from our president, top-down.”

Zamora said the president is always supportive and asking, “What can we do?” And, when the team runs into things they can’t do, Zamora said, “We find a way!”

When the Transition Academy program is at full capacity, GateWay expects to accommodate 30 to 50 students. And, when the first wave of students graduate in 2017, Zamora said those graduates are welcome to continue as students and enroll in higher level courses at GateWay.

Back at SARRC on 16th Street, Kirwan works with parents of younger students diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s. Whether the child is high-functioning or not, she reminds them, “autism is a reason for that behavior, it’s not an excuse.”

She encouraged anyone who balks to look up the word “function,” then points out its definition, which says, “using your intelligence.”

One year into his emancipation, McCoy sees no reason to excuse or veil his diagnosis. He will tell you he wants to be a motivational speaker one day and he is off to a good start — extending his hand and looking you straight in the eye.

“Hello! I am Ian McCoy and I have autism!”

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Action for Autism: SARRC, Valley college helping autistic kids get ahead