EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Autistic students have the benefit of an expansive program of services and support both within the school system and from community resources. What happens, though, to those young adults who "age out" or graduate from high schools and still require direction and training?
The Inclusion Center of East Brunswick may provide the link that supports the transition from school life to adult life for young people with autism.
The Inclusion Center, located at 415 Route 18 South near the Vitamin Center, is the brainchild of Audrey Weiner and Ross Yellen. The center provides activities aimed at socialization and training for those who require help as they gain both job skills and personal independence.
Weiner and Yellen are the creators of Disability Allies, that connects young adults and teenagers with and without disabilities in a positive environment that supports positivity and focused training. The group has partnered with county-wide educational outlets including the Future Teachers Association at Rutgers and Kohl's Volunteer Program to engage young people with each other in a safe, fun, intelligent environment near home.
"Parents need to be pro-active, " said Yellen, when describing the planning for young people after high school. He described the difficulty that some autistic people have with making friends and communicating with others when they are no longer in a structured educational setting.
"The program at the Inclusion Center," he noted, "is directed at "higher-functioning individuals who do want to go into a day program. They are not comfortable with that. We want to facilitate an environment where people can interact." He noted that some autistic people do not have the skills to create their own friendships and suggested that a location that offered opportunities to develop and exercise these skills would be invaluable to young adults who are seeking some measure of independence and growth.
The Inclusion Center features a variety of chances for participants to develop their skills, including some contemporary high-tech formats. There are 3-D printers, banks of laptop computers, a music room for learning and performance, an instructional kitchen facility, and a main room for relaxing, socializing, and teaching.
The goal of the Inclusion Center is, in Yellen's words, "to get away from the us versus them mentality." The Center is also an employer that provides training in how to interact with people with disabilities and creating a climate of "give and take."
Weiner likened the experience the Center is trying to promote as similar to that shared by East Brunswick students who have participated in the middle-school trips to Fairview Camp. "What you should get out of this are lasting, binding friendships for the rest of your lives." Weiner noted that she had been President of the East Brunswick Special Education Parent-Teachers Association (SEPTA) for seven years.
She also expressed appreciation for the support of Mayor Brad Cohen and the township administration, who attended the opening of the Inclusion Center on April 28: "He makes it his business to get everywhere he can." Weiner sees the center as a "community coming together." She has been reaching out to local schools in East Brunswick, Spotswood, and South River.
Weiner described the situation faced by people with autism when they graduate high school. "They get a support coordinator and a budget which is tiered by their level of disability. They use the money to get support and use the available services to their best advantage. The Inclusion Center could be a place that a person's family chooses to provide those services to young adults who are highly functional."
Ross Yellen, a 2008 graduate of East Brunswick High School who later attended Ramapo College, has Tourette's Syndrome, Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD.) "I had a tough time in school and was sometimes thrown out of class. What held me back was myself. I was trying to fit in. I became a class clown which made it worse. I never explained my situation to anyone or advocated for myself."
Yellen said that his situation changed when he became involved with the American Association for People with Disabilities while a student at Ramapo College. "I traveled to Washington where I spent two months with people with all sorts of disabilities. We developed a strong bond and told each other our stories I learned how people help each other. Everybody in the program was open and advocated for themselves. There were support and awareness groups and pride parades."
"Why can't I be like that?" Yellen wondered. "There are two paths a disabled person can take. One is that of pity and fear and the other involves embracing your disability." He went on to create a club at Ramapo called the Disability Caucus that promoted the idea of the disabled helping each other. He worked with a bright student with autism who was "pigeonholed into jobs below his level." The student went on to advocate for himself, asking for more complex tasks and getting greater opportunities.
Yellen created Disability Allies two and a half years ago in a desire to work with individual on a one-to-one basis, pairing individuals with buddies/mentors. About a year ago, he asked himself, "Why don't we have a place?"
Along with Weiner, he worked to create the Inclusion Center which would provide fun, structured activities. Events and classes will be held starting on Saturdays, then moving to weekdays. Long term, Yellen hopes to create an national organization that helps people to transition with more hope and joy. "It is my purpose in life," he said.
Since the opening, the Inclusion Center has hosted meetings for parents and teachers to inform them both about the program and to educate them about what happens to an autistic person when he or she exits the school system. On June 7 from 6-9 pm, the Inclusion Center will host a workshop regarding "Transition Services" in which they will discuss their offerings and provide guidance for families.