SEATTLE – Matthew Skelly’s dreams are in the clouds. Specifically, in an Alaska Airlines plane, flying through the clouds.
The 21-year-old Seattleite has a goal to become a flight attendant for the local airline company — but this spring, his training is taking place firmly on the ground, at the University of Washington.
Skelly strides confidently to a small whiteboard in the corner of a back office packed with chairs, a coffeemaker and a copy machine. He checks his task list for the day, the red highlighter in his hand poised to check off the first job.
Skelly checks the list often throughout his shift, relying on it to help keep him on track. He has autism and has long struggled to keep focused on the tasks presented him. That distraction was especially bad in middle school, Skelly remembers, but has significantly improved the past several years.
Skelly is part of Project Search at UW, a program operated in part by the university and Seattle Public Schools that helps young people with autism gain skills vital to workplaces — and, by the end of the school year, to find jobs.
The goal is that, over a course of at least three internships in a year, Skelly and his classmates will learn how to work in an office, or perhaps a restaurant, or maybe in a library — and they will know how to get to their jobs and how to interact with co-workers and supervisors.
The UW program is one of several Project Search programs across the United States, and is one of a small handful to focus solely on young people with autism. Its challenges are significant: Research shows only about half the people with autism have held a job during high school and their early 20s — the lowest rate when compared to other groups with disabilities, according to a study published in the National Institutes of Health Public Access.
But researchers at UW, backed by teachers from high schools and job-placement experts, are hopeful they can craft specific classroom lessons and pair students with specialized job experiences to give young people a jump-start into jobs.
Part of the challenge is the breadth of the autism spectrum. Autism can mean many things, but generally appears in two ways: difficulties related to social communication, and the concept of repetitive behaviors, says Gary Stobbe, a neurologist at UW Medicine who has helped craft the Project Search program.
That means people with autism might have trouble maintaining eye contact and keeping up with conversations, especially if the chatter is ambiguous, and might focus intently on a certain topic when talking to people, showing little interest for other topics. Some people with autism also have intellectual disabilities.
But not everyone with autism has any or all of these characteristics. So the program organizers focus the internships as much as possible, aiming to give all students jobs in which they can gain skills within their reach.
Holding a job has been shown to reduce depression and create better mental health generally, Stobbe says. Many people argue that getting people into jobs benefits society as a whole.
Many companies, such as Microsoft, are starting to think of people with autism as an untapped talent pool — people who are skilled, but also might bring perspectives to companies that are currently lacking.