Yasom Davis never complains about his 75-minute commute to his job as a service employee at Philadelphia International Airport. In fact, that ride is a triumph and a testament to a program at Drexel University that helps integrate young adults with autism into the workforce.
Davis, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, was among the first group of students to complete the Project SEARCH program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Project SEARCH provides internships and skills training to young adults with autism spectrum disorders and/or an intellectual disability. It is part of the Institute’s Life Course Outcomes Research Program, founded and directed by aul Shattuck, PhD.
This pioneering research aims to improve services and related outcomes among socioeconomically disadvantaged youth and adults on the autism spectrum — a largely overlooked population. Shattuck routinely presents his findings to members of Congress and Congressional staff, and his research informs national policy.
The Autism Institute demonstrates what researchers can accomplish using a multidisciplinary approach. Early results from Project SEARCH have been impressive, with half of the summer 2017 interns, including Davis, ending up with career-track employment at the airport.
“The work of Drexel’s Autism Institute is groundbreaking and far-reaching,” Drexel President John Fry says. “Just imagine the enormous potential if we can find ways to expand such initiatives.”
A future marked by independence and confidence
When the Philadelphia School District invited Davis to participate in Project SEARCH, he was about to enter his last year of high school. He and his family had no concrete plans for what would happen next, a familiar challenge for young adults with autism and their loved ones.
“Our motivation was to get him all of the support he could get to fulfill his dreams and goals.”
Davis’ mother, Latrace Nicols, did her research and was impressed by Project SEARCH’s offerings.
“I fell in love with the possibility of him entering the workforce, which is something Yasom has always talked about,” Nicols says. “Our motivation was to get him all of the support he could get to fulfill his dreams and goals.”
Davis traveled on his own while in the program, and even used public transportation for the first time.
“That alone was liberating for him, and nerve wracking for us as parents,” Nicols says, “but he showed us his ability to be trusted and handle his affairs outside of our watchful eyes.”
Nicols credits the program with helping her son achieve full-time employment and the confidence to do the job well.
“I am certain that he would not have been this open and receptive to the changes had he not gone through the Project SEARCH program first,” she says.
“If it wasn’t for Project SEARCH, I wouldn’t be working,” her son agrees, adding, “I’ll stay at the airport … until I retire.”