The Thinkers: Duquesne professor working to help autistic people work


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A young man was cleaning an elevator at a local hotel recently when some guests entered the car.

"Say hi," said a young woman standing near the man. She wasn't being rude; she was just doing her job. The woman was a Duquesne University student who was assigned to mentor the young man, who had a high-functioning form of autism and was working at his first full-time employment.

Encounters like this one are a key part of the program devised by Duquesne special education professor Ann X. Huang to help people with autism succeed in the workplace.


Ann X. Huang
  • Position: Assistant professor of special education, Duquesne University.
  • Age: 32
  • Residence: Ross
  • Education: Ph.D., applied behavioral analysis, Tennessee Tech University
  • Professional honors: Association for Behavioral Analysis presentation grant award, 2007; presidential scholarship award, Duquesne University, 2009
  • Publications: Seven papers in peer-reviewed journals

Young men with Asperger syndrome or other forms of high-functioning autism, a neurobiological disorder that affects communication skills, can often learn the skills of a job fairly easily. What they struggle with is how to behave with people.

Dr. Huang's solution? Pair them with mentors who will stay with them throughout the work shift and coach them on how to interact with bosses, co-workers and customers.

After getting a pilot grant two years ago from the state Department of Public Welfare, Dr. Huang has now received a $25,000 grant from the advocacy group Autism Speaks to extend the program to Wesley Spectrum Services, a local agency that works with the families of developmentally disabled children.

Although the program's scope is modest -- it will be able to help only a few children to start with -- it is tackling one of the most critical and overlooked problems in the world of autism.

As children on the autism spectrum enter their teens, even those who can finish college often have extreme difficulty finding work. The unemployment rate for people with autism is estimated at 80 percent in America, and of the 20 percent who work, most are in part-time jobs, says Peter Bell, executive vice president of programs and services at Autism Speaks.

The challenge is so great that a new group called Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism was begun last year. At its national town hall meeting in November, Mr. Bell, speaking of his own teenage son, posed the questions that worry many families of young adults with autism.

"What happens when the school bus stops coming to our house? Where will he live? Will he have a job? Who will take care of him when we are not around? These questions weigh heavily on us."

Dr. Huang said the answers to those questions do not necessarily lie with teaching such children how to perform a job, but how to treat others while they're on the job.

"Some of them do not greet people mutually. People will say hi, but they will respond with no eye contact, or they might not respond at all," she said.

"On other occasions, they might be too nice to other people -- they don't realize they should keep a certain distance. Some of them are very sensitive to sensory stimuli, so if they like the smell of someone else's shampoo they might come too close to the other person and that might offend some people or scare them."

One good way to meet those challenges, she said, is to pair the autistic workers, most of them young men, with college-age peers who understand all those unwritten rules of social engagement.

In her pilot programs, Dr. Huang has tended to use young women as mentors, because the autistic men respond better to them. But for certain situations, such as when the men are in a public setting, she prefers male mentors.

One example: on a public bus trip, an autistic man was very attracted to a young woman who had boarded the bus. "We say to these young men, 'If you see a woman, you should keep a certain distance from her and you should not stare at her all the time.' A lot of autistic people have good memories so they can remember those rules, but it is sometimes hard for them to generalize the behavior."

In this case, she said, the young man told his mentor that even though he knew the rules, he still wanted to sit near the young woman, but his male mentor physically pulled him back.

Dr. Huang's pilot program worked with the St. Anthony School Programs, a Catholic system for children with Down syndrome, autism and other disabilities. She is now trying to extend the mentoring system to Wesley Spectrum Services, which works with more than 7,000 children across Western Pennsylvania.

So far, the autistic students have worked at Duquesne's cafeteria, law school and copying center, as well as at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center housekeeping program and a few other work sites.

Finding willing employers is crucial, she said, but even when she can do that, there is sometimes still the issue of insensitive co-workers.

She went to observe one of her students at a local grocery store recently, where he was bagging at a checkout counter. The boy has Down syndrome and autism, she said, so he is both friendly and tends to repeat himself.

"He was saying, 'It's fun outside, do you like it?' He has good verbal communication and he was trying to greet people, but the problem is he repeats things again and again and again." It clearly irritated the cashier, said Dr. Huang, who did not let on that she knew the young man.

"The cashier was not very happy about the way he was acting. I had bought some eggs, and she asked if I wanted her to put my eggs in a bag, because 'I don't want him to ruin your eggs.' I said 'No, no, no, he's doing fine.'

"He was doing his job very well. The only part that embarrassed the cashier was that he was very friendly and didn't know the boundaries."

Dr. Huang never expected to end up doing this kind of work. When she was 24, she was a successful young English teacher at an elite school in Beijing for the children of wealthy parents. Then, she happened to visit a school for developmentally disabled children, and her life changed.

"The school I was teaching in was so different from this one, and it totally changed my mind. In Chinese society, we always think out of sight, out of mind. But I decided we cannot ignore them."

She applied for a graduate program at Tennessee Tech University, where her mentor specialized in autism, and joined the Duquesne faculty after getting her Ph.D.

Her only frustration has been that her funds for the mentoring program have been so limited. "If other agencies would like to replicate this program or other school districts were interested in developing such a program, I'd be more than happy to help them develop it.

"I hate to refuse parents. They ask, 'How can we get our kids into your program?' and too often, I have to say 'I'm so sorry, the money is limited.' "


Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130. First Published March 29, 2010 4:00 AM


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