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Giving adults with autism the skills to build independent lives

August 9, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
Before Josh, 36, arrived at First Place Transition Academy, he had never taken public transportation on his own, much less held down a paying job. But a new pilot program is empowering adults with autism to overcome hurdles to independence. Special correspondent John Donvan, co-author with Caren Zucker of “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism,” reports from Phoenix.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, we begin an occasional series about people living with autism and other spectrum disorders, A Place in the World.

While reporting the history of autism for their book, “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism,” co-authors John Donvan and Caren Zucker found a program in Phoenix, Arizona, that expands options for people living with autism.

This is the first of two reports.

JOHN DONVAN, Co-Author, “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism”: Why is it a big deal that Josh Kluger gets up every morning and makes his own breakfast and straightens up the place a little, and then remembers, belatedly to go back and grab his lunch before he heads off to work, which takes a quarter-mile hike, texting all the way, before he reaches the bus stop, and then a 45-minute trip with one transfer along the way?

And when I comes on board and Josh shows me how to swipe my ticket, why is that a big deal? Because, until last year, Josh had experienced none of this. No apartment. No paying job. No bus pass even. Actually, he’d never ridden a bus on his own before last year.

How old are you now?

JOSH KLUGER, Student, First Place: I’m 36.

JOHN DONVAN: You only really began being able to ride the bus when you were already over 30?

JOSH KLUGER: I think so, yes.

JOHN DONVAN: What did you have to learn?

JOSH KLUGER: I know learned how — streets.

JOHN DONVAN: And though Josh is not the chattiest person around, except perhaps when he’s texting, you can tell from his stride and from his air of confidence about where he’s heading that Josh really likes the life he has right now.

Is this ours?



JOHN DONVAN: And that he’s going to keep going with it, autism or not.

JOHN DONVAN: With autism, it’s usually been the kids whose faces we see when the topic is discussed, children like these. We root for their success in school and on the playground, and we have come to recognize that even a little boy like this one, who may look disconnected, and whose autism keeps him from speaking many words, nevertheless can sing and therefore also has something to say.

Boy (singing): Never give up on wishes.

JOHN DONVAN: But the kids grow up inevitably, so that the boys whose photo you just saw, they have become these men.

We gathered them together to make a point. This one is now 19-year-old Dylan. And this little boy called Stuart, he is now 22.

Josh, you have met. He is 36. This kid, he is 21 now and named Ian. Craig, he’s a 26-year-old now. And Jake, he grew into a man also. He’s 22.

And the point is, adults don’t get nearly the attention and support the kids do, maybe because they’re not as cute or because people forget that autism is lifelong. But it is. And that fact is the driving idea behind a new pilot program called First Place Transition Academy, located in Phoenix, Arizona, in which these same young men are today the pioneers.

WOMAN: Are you going to mix it? Where would you find that?

MAN: In the store.

WOMAN: In the store?

JOHN DONVAN: There are nine of them in all, paired off together in a cluster of apartments in a complex where their neighbors are mostly retirees who have no autism connection.

They eat together and learn together, two years of specialized training designed to improve their odds of having, let’s call it, a successful adulthood, which means what?

IAN MCCOY, Student, First Place: What doughnuts would you like for that one?

JOHN DONVAN: Well, take Ian, who is now holding down a paying job arranged for by the program, showing that he can be good at customer service.

IAN MCCOY: I got the lemonade and morning buzz.

JOHN DONVAN: Social interactions can be enormously challenging for people on the spectrum. That’s part of the reason that unemployment among autistic adults hovers near 80 percent.

IAN MCCOY: Hello. How’s it going?

MAN: Pretty good, I guess.

JOHN DONVAN: Not long ago, that included Ian, who is an unfailing optimist.

Before you came here, where were you? Were you in high school?

IAN MCCOY: I was in my parents’ house for at least two years. I enrolled. Here I am now a year later. I am satisfied with my future.

JOHN DONVAN: What is your future? Do you know?

IAN MCCOY: It’s hard to predict right now.

JOHN DONVAN: Sure. Sure.

IAN MCCOY: It’s a brief idea. I would like to live in an apartment, pay my own rent, have my own car and have a career, in other words, because I’m — the part-time job is kind of tedious, but it’s my main focus for now.

JOHN DONVAN: Well, that’s all about learning how to do jobs, right?

IAN MCCOY: Absolutely, yes.

JOHN DONVAN: The other men go to other workplaces, a garden that raises produce for sales to restaurants.

MAN: Awesome.

IAN MCCOY: An animal shelter which happens to be a volunteer job, but that doesn’t matter. Knowing how to be professionally responsible and productive does, like being on time for work, dressing correctly for the situation, completing tasks assigned reliably.

These are learned skills that do not necessarily come easily to all members of the group because of their autism.

BRAD HERRON-VALENZUELA, Gateway Community College: So, on the worksheet, guys, you are putting a check mark for the items that you’re going to need to purchase in your first apartment.

JOHN DONVAN: And support staff literally imparts lessons on the logistics of adult life, like this session held in a lecture hall made available by Gateway Community College. It’s a class on how to navigate the options available in public transport, how to get from here to there, with quizzes.

MAN: Exact fare required.

MAN: Exact fare required.

JOHN DONVAN: When it comes to successful adulthood, it’s this sort of mundane-seeming know-how that can in fact be crucial.

How important is that to their success in this program?

BRAD HERRON-VALENZUELA: Yes, it’s critical. And it’s one of the skills that we target really early on. I mean, again, this is the thing that’s going to allow them to access employment. It’s going to allow them to access different social activities, different quality of life things.

JOHN DONVAN: So getting around is key to independence?

BRAD HERRON-VALENZUELA: Absolutely. It’s critical.

JOHN DONVAN: Which brings us back to Josh. That 45-minute commute of his landed us here.

So this is your place of work, huh?



Josh works for the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. He and another member of the group named Jake, they have been cycling through a variety of jobs here, some in the office upstairs, and now they’re getting their hands dirty with grounds maintenance.

Josh, you’re not a big baseball fan.


JOHN DONVAN: But you’re a work fan. It sounds like you really love this job.

JOSH KLUGER: In a way.

JOHN DONVAN: In a way. Oh.


JOHN DONVAN: OK. But he loves being a working man, even though his boss here, Marian Rhodes, says it has not always been smooth.

MARIAN RHODES, Executive, Arizona Diamondbacks: He had a thing with his badge, that he was losing his badge constantly. I said, where’s your badge? And he’s like, I left it here, whatever.

And I said — I had to explain to him, your badge is like the key to your home. That’s the key to our ballpark. So, if you lose it, someone has the key to access our building at any time. And I said, so what’s the answer here? We now have him drop the badge off in the morning and pick the badge up. And so he hasn’t — now he is always clocked in and clocked out.

JOHN DONVAN: But that’s what learning is about.

Are you willing to let these guys make mistakes more than you would other people?

MARIAN RHODES: Definitely.


MARIAN RHODES: Definitely.

JOHN DONVAN: Why is that important?

MARIAN RHODES: Because you have to meet them where they are.

JOHN DONVAN: Josh’s mom has been astounded by the change she’s seen in the past 12 months.

BONNIE KLUGER, Mother of Josh Kluger: There are so many ways that he has changed and grown, that he’s going to school, he’s learning classes. He’s taking responsibilities for his homework. He’s taking responsibility for his budgeting.

JOHN DONVAN: This is all new?

BONNIE KLUGER: This is all new.

JOHN DONVAN: This is something he learned as a middle-aged man?

BONNIE KLUGER: As a middle-aged man.


BONNIE KLUGER: The growth has been amazing. It’s really been amazing.

JOHN DONVAN: If Josh were not here, where would he be in life?

BONNIE KLUGER: At our house, doing probably the same thing, and not being very happy. And I don’t know what his future would have been.

JOHN DONVAN: And back at the apartment complex, you can see how these guys, some of whom had no friends to speak of before in their lives, are learning to help each other out.

They are, in short, a community. And while this pilot project has enrolled only men, who today make up roughly 80 percent of people recognized as autistic, the full program will grow to include women as well.

But now something needs to be said as that group shot we started with, and in particular about the man on the lower right. He was once that singing boy, and, in fact, he doesn’t live with the other men. He can’t, because his autism affects him differently from the others. But there is a place being built in Phoenix that will also have room for him.

That story in part two tomorrow.