Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia recognizes April as Autism Awareness Month as an opportunity to highlight its commitment to helping those living with autism spectrum disorders become successful working members of the community.
Since early 2017, Goodwill has partnered with Northstar Academy and its Career Academy to provide workforce training and vocational services to students with disabilities. One third of the school’s students are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
“In the simplest terms, autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that primarily impacts an individual’s social skills and social interaction,” said Crystal Trent, head of school for Northstar Academy. “We look at autism as something that makes a student unique and gives them a different set of gifts,” she added.
The partnership between Northstar Academy and Goodwill benefits students by combining classroom instruction with real-world work experience and job readiness education in a supportive environment.
“We help those transitioning from high school to develop foundational skills that will equip them to successfully navigate the world of work,” said John Dougherty, Goodwill’s vice president of community workforce.
Goodwill incorporates curriculum from its School to Work program, a career pathway that provides on-the-job training to build skills of high school students receiving special education. Goodwill’s employment skills trainers also provide coaching sessions that cover a variety of job-related topics, including:
- Appropriate work attire Interpersonal skills
- Decision making skills Interviewing skills
- Employer expectations Self-management
“One of the wonderful things about our Goodwill partnership is students are embedded side-by-side with employees, where they can practically apply their workforce and social interaction skills,” said Holly Peele, director of Northstar Career Academy. During the spring and fall school semesters, 11th and 12th grade students in small groups visit Goodwill’s Richmond Support Center once a week with their Northstar instructional staff.
“Recently, we had a young lady working at Goodwill’s front desk, greeting and checking in visitors and answering phones,” said Peele. “Another young man in the human resources department developed a database and inputted information into an Excel spreadsheet. In both instances, the students needed to follow directions, use active listening and communicate their need for clarification if they didn’t understand something.
“Also, if a task was added or changed, they need to interpret it did not mean they did something wrong. It means the work environment is dynamic and they have to keep up with changes. That is not an instant understanding for our students. They need to practice it in a workplace setting,” said Peele.
Northstar and Goodwill also teach students how to advocate for themselves, as individuals with autism have a different set of issues in the workplace. “Those with autism spectrum disorder may prefer working alone or in a small group. But, what they may lack in communication skills is buoyed by their work ethic and their desire to solve problems,” said Trent.
Goodwill leaders say they received high marks from participants, and the organization looks forward to continuing its partnership with Northstar well into the future. “We want employers to know that individuals with disabilities bring worth and a level of joy to their workplace,” said Dougherty. “It makes for a better work environment when it’s an inclusive one.”
Editor’s Note: Individuals with autism spectrum disorders comprise one of the fastest-growing populations requesting services from Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia. To learn more about our vocational services, contact Stephanie Porter-Lopez at 804-745-6300.