Working with Autism

Meristem, a new school in Fair Oaks, bridges the education gap to job-readiness

Back Web Only Oct 29, 2015 By Russell Nichols

Business owners looking for new hires might want to keep on eye on Meristem.

Twenty minutes east of Sacramento, the new school opened in September with a mission to help young adults with ASD or other developmental differences find jobs. Developed in the U.K., this postsecondary transition program uses practical courses (e.g. woodworking, farming, arts) to teach transferable work skills such as problem-solving, teamwork and communication.

Most programs for ASD focus on early intervention. But every year, 50,000 individuals on the autism spectrum turn 18, and only a fraction find long-term employment. According to Meristem’s president Oliver Cheney, it’s a dire problem with far-reaching consequences.

“If we don’t find ways to solve this together, everybody’s going to lose out — not just families, but also the state and country,” Cheney says. “If these young people can’t make a positive contribution, there’s an economic cost as well as a social cost.”

He points out that individuals with autism have certain traits that are invaluable for any position: reliability, organization, honesty, commitment and the ability to follow processes. But what’s been lacking is a bridge to connect them to the workforce.

“We need new innovative approaches to support young adults on the autism spectrum,” says Cheney. “What’s really important is good community partnerships and helping the business community understand the potential of hiring an individual on the autism spectrum.”

Before coming to the States, he spent over a decade with Ruskin Mill Trust, an English educational nonprofit that operates similar facilities for adults on the autism spectrum across the U.K. Cheney hopes to replicate that success in the U.S., starting in Fair Oaks on a lush 13-acre campus shared with Rudolf Steiner College. He chose the site for its agricultural environment, farm-to-fork connections and its proximity to the state capital and the UC Davis MIND Institute.

“Sacramento is an up-and-coming place,” he says. “We want our graduates to transition into a job market that’s full of healthy opportunities.”

Last month, 15 individuals began their first of three years in the Meristem program, which is offered to both residential and commuter students. (Cheney plans to top off admittance at 45 for this campus.) A typical day begins at 8:30 a.m. There are two different subjects per day, and each course uses a learn-by-doing approach. For example, a horticulture class might focus on retail, where students learn social skills by taking vegetables to a local farmers market.

In addition to work skills and social skills, the other key component of the program is independent living skills. This includes courses on budgeting, safe travel and time management. In these classes, the lesson isn’t so much showing students how to do these things, but helping them learn how to respond to unexpected changes in routines.

“If somebody on the autism spectrum can learn to travel independently, learning what time the bus arrives and where it goes isn’t hard,” Cheney says. “But what do you do when the bus doesn’t show up or gets canceled?”

The goal is to teach problem-solving in a supportive, safe environment where students also learn that it’s OK to make mistakes. And if the first month is any indication, the students are excited to be at Meristem, according to Jim Lawlor, the school’s independent living manager.

“I want to live here!” said one student on orientation night after seeing the board games and foosball table in the recreation room.

Another student, who Lawlor says is usually reserved, strode down the dorm workshop hall after the first movie night, doing his best “blue steel” expression from Ben Stiller’s fashion/satire hit “Zoolander” and saying, “This is my walk.”

They’ve been so charged up, in fact, that Lawlor says one of the challenges is reminding the students to slow down. “What we’re trying to do is encourage them into making this experience their focus and seeing the moment as opposed to all these things that are desires for the future,” he says. “This is a stepping stone to get to that point.”