Article: What’s working? Autistry Enterprises for employment

| April 30, 2011

by Dan Swearingen and Janet Lawson, MFT

The core mission of Autistry Studios is supporting the transition of ASD youth to whatever level of adult independence each individual is capable of achieving. Our Core Workshops and our new Drama Workshops prepare students for adult life by exercising and growing executive skills while building confidence and mental resiliency. These skills combined support real time decision-making and the ability to act on decisions – the abilities needed to successfully work and create.

The Thursday gang Our existing Core Workshops include a range of activities that could be characterized as going from “play” to “playful work.” Last year, as Autistry grew to including a growing adult student body we felt a need for more direct employment training: An employment program which could be thought of as picking up from “playful work” and transitioning into “realistic work.”

Importance of Work

Alex and IanMeaningful work is how we establish our identity, maintain our independence, and construct a real relationship with our community. Without appropriate opportunities to work our students are denied independence, denied an adult identity, and denied a real place in our community.

Building the ability to work is fundamental to fulfilling our mission supporting transition for ASD youth.

Our programs have always been driven by the needs of the students with whom we work. Our students today need initial work experience in safe situations where they can explore and learn initial job skills, practice social skills, and cultivate their work ethic.

Initial experiments

Our first experience providing work was to have students work extra hours doing chores around our workshop areas. This was a gentle extension of their normal workshop schedule. This succeeded to some extent but highlighted requirements a more robust program would need to meet:

  • Increased structure – more work hours per week.
  • A mix of routine: repeated tasks in which deep competency can be built up as well as unique tasks exercising problem solving skills.
  • Measured amounts of social interaction appropriate to the employee’s social skills.
  • Work objectives that are real and meaningful to the employees.

Our new employment programs for Q3-Q4 2011

Based on the lessons we have learned and to the extent that funding permits, we will be rolling out several internal direct employment businesses to which Autistry students would be eligible to apply starting summer of 2011.

In the past these internal businesses would have been called sheltered work programs but the current trend is to call programs like these Social Enterprises. This is a wide ranging term for any program that applies capitalistic strategies to achieving philanthropic goals. In our usage we will be calling these new Autistry Studios employment projects Autistry Enterprises.

The goal of the Autistry Enterprises is to set up a cluster of internal businesses that feed business to each other as well as outside businesses and customers much as a Japanese keiretsu (network of companies) functions.

Autistry Publishing

A couple of our students are in the process of writing books which will be published by Autistry Studios. In addition to the direct processes of producing content, digital textblock, illustrations, and actually printing books we will be handling ISBN registration and setting up sales and delivery channels.

This Autistry enterprise will feed business into Autistry IT (website, e-commerce, technical support) and Autistry Figures (figure from the books) – both described below.


Autistry Railroad

Foothill Station - FinallyThe Autistry RR will produce model structure kits in cut-and-fold, cast plaster, cast resin, and eventually laser-cut wood and plastic formats. This company will employ designers working on CAD systems, technical writers/illustrators making instruction material, workers producing and packaging kit materials while maintaining inventory, and workers handling and fulfilling orders.

This Autistry enterprise will feed business into Autistry Publishing (printed materials, packaging) and Autistry IT (website, e-commerce, technical support).

Autistry Figures

Picture 063Autistry Figures will produce customized figures in many formats. Some will be hand painted figures available commercially; others will be complete custom creations.

This Autistry enterprise will feed business into Autistry Publishing (printed materials, packaging) and Autistry IT (website, e-commerce, technical support).

Autistry IT

Adam booting his PC build projectAutistry IT will provide computer hardware and software support to Autistry Studios and Autistry Enterprises. It will produce and manage websites for all the Autistry activities including e-commerce capabilities.

Next Steps

We have the resources to start the Autistry Enterprises but they will need significant direct family support to grow to a point where they can provide paid employment.

[Updated 9/2/2013]

The Autistry Employment Program was launched as the Autistry Model Employment Program in June 2013.

Article: The Core Workshop Program

| April 27, 2011

By Janet Lawson, Liz McDonough, and Dan Swearingen

We are coming up on the 3rd anniversary of Autistry Studios (once known as The Barn Project). We are looking back at our journey in amazement and we are looking to our future with renewed passion. As Autistry Studios continues to grow, so does our vision. Autistry has truly become a center for learning and we are humbled by how much we are educated by our students with each workshop. We are using this knowledge to further develop our model and refine our approach. In this first of a series of mini-articles we would like to share some of these insights and what they mean for the future of Autistry.

Perhaps the biggest change in the Core Workshops over the last three years has been increasing the age range and verbal range of students in the program. Initially we focused only on high verbal high-school age students, convinced that lower verbal and older individuals would not benefit from our programs.

When we were approached by families with older children and some with children with lower verbal ability we decided to see if our program would work for them. We quickly experienced for ourselves the simple truth: regardless of one’s age the mind continues to learn. This revelation gave us so much hope – that learning does occur across the life-span. It doesn’t stop at 20. For any individual student this means long term goals can be ambitious, it is just a question of appropriate intermediate steps and time. This holds for the low verbal students as well. Over time they continue to learn, therefore over a long enough time span of appropriate challenges they too can reach impressive goals.

The second lesson we learned is that building a solid relationship with each student is essential. Each student needs to be seen and to feel heard. They need to experience themselves reflected back in a positive light. Many students come to Autistry having experienced negative social interaction at school or in recreational programs. They often do not understand why they have difficulty making friends or sustaining friendships. During the initial relationship building phase we take the time to get to know the student. In this process, we also share ourselves. It is not a one-sided interaction, but a lively and dynamic exchange. It takes time to understand someone and even longer to learn to trust them. But when we achieve mutual respect and trust the learning can really begin. That is when, as one student put it, “They really get me.” This is the very foundation of our work.

Once we build the relationship, we find that students are more likely to reveal their personal challenges without defensiveness. Our workshops teach skills but our instructors also model problem-solving, exploration, making mistakes and bouncing back from them. Each new project represents a leap into the unknown and our role is to serve as the guide to this unfamiliar territory. It is our belief that each project fosters a developmental leap, which in turn points the way to the next challenge.

We have found that it is imperative to assess the developmental level of each student, because it helps us understand how they are seeing the world and what challenges they are attempting to navigate. Chronological age and developmental age are often quite different. As parents and as service providers we often forget that a basic issue of autism is developmental delay. And it is not a global delay because another fundamental issue of ASD is uneven development; different aspects of the individual mature at different rates. One may be academically advanced yet emotionally behind. One may be physically mature yet intellectually unsophisticated. We believe that in order for a student to advance we must embrace all their different strengths and weaknesses.

Autistry has become far more than a 4-hour workshop; it is a model to support ASD teens and adults in transition. Membership in our Core Workshop Program includes the following services:

  1. One on one student check-ins with licensed MFT during course of workshop
  2. Developmental Assessment – a written report of our observations of the students’ skill level and emotional maturity (presented at end of semester)
  3. One family meeting per semester to address transitional planning and clinical issues
  4. Monthly parent support group
  5. College homework support

We also offer additional counseling support to individuals, groups and families. We are available for 1:1 mentoring sessions, tutoring and consultation.

Our mission is to support teens and adults with ASD in making the transition from their current situation to secondary schooling and/or meaningful vocation. For some, this may be a shorter path, but for most of our students it is a bumpy road filled with twists and unexpected turns. And though we pride ourselves on helping our students improve executive functioning, the ability to have meaningful relationships and gain valuable vocational skills, we strive most of all to instill a sense of resiliency. It is this quality that will allow them to fall off the horse and get right back on it. It is resiliency that will keep them receptive to learning and open to taking risks despite the obstacles along the way. At Autistry, we hold the conviction that individuals, be they in their teens, 20’s, 30’s or 40’s can and will progress if they are simultaneously supported and challenged.

Our next installment will be Liz’s thoughts on a new Drama Theater Workshop program.


Autistry Studios Newsletter – April 25, 2011

| April 25, 2011

In the news: The Autistry film group won 2nd prize at the EdRev Short Film Competition last weekend for the trailer for their new film – The Deadly DiamondYou can view the trailer on YouTube. Filming on the The Deadly Diamond continued this weekend with the zombie shoot! Stay tuned for news of the premiere date.

We had a wonderful visit with Michael McManmon, the founder of the College Internship Program.  We gave him a tour of Autistry Studios and spent two hours discussing our programs, his programs, LD issues, ASD issues – and how we might work together.  It was great to talk with someone who gets it.  We are thinking of a Fall or Spring trip back east to their new Arts and Theater program. Here is a link to a posting about us at CIP. They did get Dan’s name wrong – it’s Dan Swearingen not Lawson!

Summer Plans: we will be continuing our scheduled workshops through the summer months.  We have openings in a few of the workshops so if you are interested in joining Autistry please contact us. We will open new workshops as our student body grows.

Our program has been going for nearly three years and we have learned a lot during this time. Over the next few weeks we will be sending out short articles about our experience – describing our program and laying out our vision for the future. We have big things planned!