Riegel: Helping the autistic transition into adulthood

Like many parents whose children were being diagnosed in the early 2000s with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Steve and Sharon Whitlow did everything they could to get their son, Sam, the help he needed.

They educated themselves through the internet, sought out available resources, did early intervention, and enrolled him in a private school—which they were fortunate enough to be able to afford.

But when Sam got to high school in 2014, Steve Whitlow went to the school administration with a thoughtful question: What happens when Sam graduates? What comes next?

The answer was chilling.

“There really was no answer,” he recalls. “There is such a focus on early intervention, which is great because it’s so needed and it’s beneficial. The difficulty is, these kids go from early intervention to school, where everything is taken care of, so there is this expectation that something is going to happen after they graduate. But nothing happens. It’s a slap in the face.”

A few months later, the Whitlows founded the Gateway Transition Center, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping autistic teenagers and young adults transition into adulthood—whether that means going on to college, entering the workforce or just living independently.

It’s something the Whitlows didn’t think much about when Sam was younger. Many parents don’t, and there’s been so much focus on the early years of ASD many people don’t realize there aren’t comparable resources for older teens and young adults.

But there is a crying need for transitional services both in this community and nationwide, and it’s only going to increase. Since the 1990s, the number of ASD diagnoses has exploded. The most recent estimates of autism prevalence is about one in 68. That’s up 30% from one in 88 in 2008, and more than double the rate of one in 150 in 2000.

Those kids diagnosed in the early 2000s are graduating from high school now, at least those fortunate enough, like Sam, to have gotten that far. What’s next for them?

“The difficulty is, these kids go from early intervention to school, where everything is taken care of, so there is this expectation that something is going to happen after they graduate. But nothing happens. It’s a slap in the face.”

—Steve Whitlow, founder, The Gateway Transition Center

The Gateway Transition Center is now an option, one of the only options in the Baton Rouge area. Steve Whitlow quit his job as an attorney to start up the nonprofit and help run the organization. Sharon Whitlow, also an attorney, now supports the family.

Gateway, which operates out of a facility on Joor Road in Central, offers two basic programs. One is a day program, where participants are taught soft skills that will help them with independent living. They meet in groups, and take field trips to places like the bank and the grocery store, where they learn how to interact, conduct basic transactions, and negotiate social situations in public settings.

Gateway also has a screen printing business, Gateway Ink, that employs young adults with ASD. They work in the shop and learn how to function in a workplace, show up on time, stick to a schedule, and collect a paycheck. Several nonprofit organizations in the area have been supportive of Gateway Ink and now buy T-shirts from Gateway Ink for their fundraisers and events. It’s a way to show solidarity.

The orders aren’t huge, and the revenues the printing business generates aren’t enough yet to plow back into the Gateway Transition Center, which is the ultimate goal. For now, they’re only enough to cover costs and pay the young employees minimum wage.

But it’s a start.

Now, Whitlow is turning his attention to the next piece of the puzzle—helping young people with ASD get a job once they’re trained. After all, the goal of Gateway is to prepare them for the workforce and Gateway Ink can’t employ them forever.

But in doing research into similar transitional programs around the country, Whitlow has found that lining up employers willing to give these young people a chance is a challenge.

“And if you don’t have employers who are willing to receive these kids, then it’s all for naught,” he says. “Because they just end up back in their parents’ house playing Nintendo.”

Late last year, Whitlow created the Genesis Employment Coalition. It’s really just a working group at this point, but its members have been brainstorming ways to identify potential employers in the local market and how to provide them with the kind of trained workers they need.

He’s pulled together representatives from other nonprofit groups that help disabled adults. Later this month they plan to get together with what he hopes will be several representatives from the local business community.

“The idea is not to do the big sales pitch,” he says. “This is more of an opportunity for employers to tell us what are the major obstacles to we need to overcome so we can provide them with the workers they need.”

It’s a worthy goal from a smart, dedicated man, who has a personal stake in making this thing work. But it’s something the broader business community should take an interest in as well. It’s easy to get excited about helping kids with ASD by supporting the schools and centers that provide them with the programming and resources they need.

But those little kids grow up, and it’s equally important to support the efforts that will help them transition into productive, contributing adults in our community.

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