Mom Opens Doors for People with Autism

Photo by Kelli Caldwell
The Autism Academy of South Carolina will hold the meetings for the No Couch Campaign for the next year

By Kelli Caldwell

Thinking about your child’s future usually means thinking about a career, but what if your child is autistic? What plans are in place for his or her job search? With no other programs in the area the Autism Academy of South Carolina hopes to fix that problem.

In 2010, the Autism Academy was founded in Columbia, S.C., by a group of concerned parents who wanted a better environment for their children with autism to grow up in. Although they had limited knowledge as to what kind of programs children with autism should receive, the parents were determined to bring a more fitting environment to the community for these children. In result, the academy opened its doors and invited new families to join in the Midlands.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is key at the Autism Academy and founders Lorri and Dan Unumb believe it’s the best practice for people with autism. ABA is a one-on-one approach that rewards the patients with positive reinforcement. ABA has proven to be one of the better forms of therapy when dealing with people on the autism spectrum, so when the academy opened it helped fill a void for many families in the community.

As the vice president of state government affairs for Autism Speaks, Lorri Unumb got her start trying to pass a health care bill to require insurance companies to cover treatments for autism. In 2008, the law was passed and named it after Unumb’s son, Ryan, who has autism.  Called Ryan’s Law, the law is now in 45 states. Unumb is constantly working and traveling to try to improve it. Unumb wants people to remember that just because something has never been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. She was just a mom trying to get justice for her son. Now she has a nationwide law.

The Autism Academy is seven years old, so Unumb decided it was time to think about the future for clients after they transition into adulthood. The academy serves youth and adults ages 2-21. As Unumb’s own son is about to turn 16 she created this idea that the current Midlands community is lacking. More than 80 percent of people with autism don’t end up getting jobs and Unumb wants to change that.

“I just feel this pressure to create this campaign and create a program to help transition young adults into meaningful adulthood,” Unumb said. “What happens now is so many of them graduate from high school or don’t graduate and then they just go back home and sit on their parents’ couches, for years or a lifetime. That’s just a waste of a lifetime.”

Many businesses don’t realize people with autism have these skills, so if there was a place to give them that information, more would be hired. This is where the Couch-to-Career center comes into play. It will partner with different businesses in the area to set up internship opportunities for people with autism at the ages of 14-24.

It will start with a year long campaign called the No Couch Campaign that will develop the Couch-to-Career center. It will give the businesses the knowledge about people with autism and how to handle it in the work force.

“It might take them two years to learn what is being asked of them and to be proficient, so it does,” Unumb said. “We should spend the two years because then the rest of their life they can do something meaningful, he can be a taxpayer and contribute to society rather than someone that sits on the couch and just draws from society.”

The career program for people with autism will have a chance now, thanks to the University of South Carolina.

The Innovative Intervention Incubator Program is through USC and its College of Social Work. This program will be lead by Dr. Robert Hock and a team of graduate students to partner with leaders in the Autism Academy. The Autism Academy was accepted into their program because it reached the criteria of impact, innovation, viability, and sustainability with their idea. Hock specializes in studying treatment and relationships with autism so he was eager to see what the Autism Academy could bring to the table.

“With this project we recognized there was a real need in the Midlands in our community,” Hock said. “The Autism Academy has a strong reputation in the community to make things happen rather than just talking the talk.”

The incubator program will work the full No Couch Campaign year to help get things in order for the Autism Academy to have the right plans in place. They will help them have the right materials for future funding and help get their ideas in motion for the center to be successful. The ideas would include certain materials to supply to business so they would know how to handle people with autism.

Executive Director of the Autism Academy Mike McCauley, is eager to work with the incubator program because of its focus will bring intensity to project development. As a sibling to a sister with special needs he attests to the success people with disabilities have in the workforce and what this program could mean to businesses in the community.

“They are wicked smart,” McCauley said. “Their disability often means they have trouble with social situations rather than with communication but with proper supports they can contribute in ways that you and I can’t. We want to help pave that road.”

“Autism impacts each individual in a different way,” McCauley said. “It’s not like you can do a one size fits all kind of program.”

There have been recent studies that show that intensive job training for youth on the autism spectrum helps their employment rate go up by 20 percent, according to Virginia Commonwealth University. This program can pull ideas from other programs that are already up and running to make the Couch-to-Career center just as successful. Once this program is put in place, McCauley knows how much it will benefit not just the community but the parents of the people on the autism spectrum.

“It’s a win-win, for our community and for the society,” McCauley said. “There are parents in tears talking about the prospect of their child being able to have a job and be a taxpayer.”

Even though the Couch-to-Career center is in preliminary stages, the Columbia Fireflies have already offered to be their first business community partner. They have offered to promote the No Couch Campaign at their games and even place young adults at different workstations as early as this summer. Placing the young adults in these stations can be an image other businesses in the community can see and potentially be inspired to team up with the program as well.

In the need for funding and logistics the Autism Academy hopes to have the Couch-To-Career center running in 2018 with businesses in the Midlands area.

“There are just so many different opportunities for the skills that our young people have,” Unumb said. “So we can urge the business community to open their minds to reach out to us and to work with us.”

Caldwell is a public relations senior