When Laini Sohn started her internship at Kennedy Health's Cherry Hill campus last month, the 21-year-old seemed willing enough to work and learn. Still, her supervisor Carol Nilsen wasn't quite sure what to expect.
"I didn't know what she was capable of," Nilsen said. "I gave her a task that should have taken 2½ weeks."
Sohn, though, didn't know how long the data-entry assignment was supposed to take.
"She got it done in three days," said Nilsen, still sounding surprised. "She just plugs away."
Laini Sohn and her fellow interns are all on the autism spectrum. They are part of an international program that is opening employers' eyes to what people with developmental disabilities can do.
Project SEARCH prepares workers for entry-level jobs that pay competitive wages because they fill real needs for employers seeking reliable help. Cofounder Erin Riehle helped start the program about 20 years ago when she was director of the emergency department at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Riehle needed to fill jobs that many people find boring, perform without enthusiasm, and often quit without much warning. Project SEARCH sought to prepare people with disabilities to do these jobs and thrive in a workplace with people of all abilities. Since then, the program has been replicated at more than 300 sites in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.
In one study, 61 percent of the developmentally disabled young adults who graduated from the program found positions at about $9.20 an hour for more than 24 hours a week. For graduates on the autism spectrum in the study, the employment rate was 53 percent, compared with about 33 percent for people on the spectrum who had not been in Project SEARCH. The more recent overall employment figure for Project SEARCH graduates is over 75 percent.
With the help of funding from New York Collaborates for Autism, a pilot program to improve those results started last fall at Kennedy. Most of the seven interns were from the Y.A.L.E. School for people with developmental disabilities in South Jersey and Philadelphia. Drexel University's A.J. Drexel Autism Institute is conducting a second pilot with Philadelphia public school students.
According to government estimates, one in every 68 U.S. children now is being diagnosed on the autism spectrum; early intervention programs are helping more people reach their potential so they can go on to hold jobs and live independently.
Autism spectrum disorder is a complex developmental disorder marked by difficulties in social interactions and verbal and nonverbal communication, and often repetitive behaviors, all which can make it hard for people on the spectrum to function and get along in a work setting.
The Project SEARCH interns are on the work site five days a week with a teacher, job coaches, and mentors. They go through three different placements in each company so they can learn different job skills. While other work programs for people with disabilities end in positions that are just a day or two a week, Project SEARCH emphasizes jobs that are close to full time. Plus, graduates are competing with candidates who don't share their disability.
Still, accommodations are made to help people with autism, such as increased structure, more use of pictures in the teaching sessions, and extra help navigating social interactions. For example, interns may be encouraged to have lunch with their coworkers, rather than with fellow interns. Trainers don't assume anything: When snow was forecast recently, the Kennedy interns were told to email their supervisors if they couldn't make it in.
And as with any Project SEARCH work site, interns' supervisors and coworkers also get some coaching so they are more comfortable with their new colleagues.
"Just as people with disabilities aren't being taught skills, people in business aren't being taught to work with people with disabilities," Riehle said.
Christian Kearse, 21, a Project SEARCH intern in the Drexel program who had attended Parkway West High School, has been working at the Barnes & Noble College Bookstore. Kearse doesn't speak, and that's fine in his new job — he wrote that his favorite part of the internship has been learning new things, such as using a laptop, emailing, and folding clothes.
"The purpose of Project SEARCH was to teach job skills and prepare interns for jobs after high school," said bookstore general manager John Rorer. "In hindsight, I am not sure who gained a more valuable experience, the interns or myself."
Kennedy storeroom manager Dave Koss said he and his staff were apprehensive before the program. They hadn't expected how helpful the interns would be and how enjoyable it was to help them learn.
"I think that, as Project SEARCH helps those with autism to learn job skills, more people at Kennedy and in the community will learn not to think about the inabilities that people with disabilities have," Koss said. "They actually have a lot to contribute and are very capable people."
Said Peggy Chapman, Y.A.L.E. assistant director: "We're breaking down some of those old-fashioned stereotypes that don't apply."
In addition, Chapman said, the program, along with recent law changes, is bringing together the school, its students, and state agencies to help plan for the young people's transition into work before they age out of the education system at age 21. Under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, disabled people are entitled to education up to the age of 21.
Ernie Laux, the Kennedy interns' teacher, has worked with Y.A.L.E. students seeking to transition from education to work for more than a decade.
He finds that they relish being at work for more hours than traditional programs for the disabled offer, and they thrive on being treated like anyone else.
" 'I can be with new people,' " Laux said students will say. " 'I can do new things. I can do what neurotypicals do.' "
Students are not guaranteed jobs with their internship employers, though some have been told they'll be able to stay on.
Anthony Goodson, 21, of Camden, worked the storeroom at first, which was too solitary for his gregarious nature. Now he works to keep the emergency department stocked with supplies, which keeps him on the move and interacting with his coworkers.
"I love my job, " Goodson said. "I love my work."
Laini Sohn wasn't too thrilled with her first post — environmental services, including cleaning rooms. She is a small person and has some coordination issues that made handling bedsheets on her own a challenge. Even so, she got a note of thanks from a patient for her kindness.
Her new internship working with computers is much more to her liking. She hopes to get a similar permanent position and go to community college.
Her dream job?
"Editor," said Sohn. "To be able to correct people's grammar without being called a butt for it."
Her mother sees new possibilities for Laini she once might not have dared to contemplate. When Laini was in middle school, Judi Sohn had to fight with the central New Jersey school district where they lived to get her daughter the help she needed. They ultimately moved to South Jersey because they found support in the public schools and Y.A.L.E.
Like many parents of children on the spectrum, Judi Sohn was reluctant to think about what would happen when her daughter's school years were over.
"I never let myself think that far in advance," Sohn said. "I always hoped that she would have a job. I couldn't picture how it would be possible. Now I can picture how it could be possible."