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|Effective Program: ACN Connections|
The Autism Center of Nebraska, Inc. (ACN) works to support and enhance the quality of life for persons with autism and other developmental disabilities and their families. The goal for ACN Connections, in keeping with the overall goal of ACN, is to enhance the lives of persons with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) by supporting them in securing and maintaining real jobs in their communities.
ACN is a certified developmental disabilities service provider under contract with the State of Nebraska Health and Human Services, Division of Developmental Disabilities. Nearly 130 individuals receive services from ACN, ranging in age from seven to 60. Although ACN specializes in ASD, ACN serves persons with a variety of developmental disabilities. Individualized services and supports are designed to lead to a higher level of independence for each individual receiving services, addressing the individual’s desires for his or her future. ACN provides a variety of residential, vocational, pre-vocational, and educational services. ACN operates with the belief that every person, regardless of disability, is valuable, and deserves to be considered valued members of their home community.
For further information view this video.
Program Design of ACN Connections
ACN Connections offers employment services to individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities seeking competitive employment in the community. Individuals are referred by the Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation Agency to ACN. ACN Connections meets with the individual to begin the Career Planning Process.
Job developers meet with clients and fill out detailed individual profiles and preference inventories to find job matches that meet the needs and preferences of the individual, benefiting both the employee and the participating employer by creating a positive and beneficial job match.
ACN Connections provides long-term support to clients and employers. ACN staff stay in contact with clients through direct job coaching, email, texting, and face-to-face meetings in order to practice social skills or job specific skills. ACN Connections is also in contact with employers and responds immediately to their concerns and needs. ACN Connections is available to employers and the client’s co-workers for additional education and/or training.
What makes ACN Connections work?
"I do not believe that there is anything surprising here or any one thing that has led to the many successful job placements, just a lot of common sense things put together. We started with experienced, dedicated, and hard-working staff. A good assessment process, paying close attention to the client’s preferences and conditions is imperative. This leads to good job matching, we don’t want to have the client have to apply for 20 jobs and hope one works out. We do a lot of upfront prep work with the client and potential employer with the expectation that the client will be hired for the job he or she applies for. And then there is the long-term support for both client and the employer to increase the likelihood the job will be maintained and, hopefully, the employer will come to us when they have other employment opportunities available."
—Rene Ferdinand, executive director, Autism Center of Nebraska
Cost of Program
The annual operations budget for ACN in 2011 was just under $5,000,000. The annual operating budget for ACN Connections is approximately $100,000. The employment program is funded by state VR payments, federal grants, fundraising, and foundation funding.
Necessary for Successful Replication
ACN staff feel the program could be replicated by others and point to the following important elements for other programs to incorporate:
Zach was diagnosed with ASD while in elementary school. He has above average intellectual skills but has difficulties interacting with others. Anxiety can sometimes immobilize him, causing him to shut down. Zach graduated from Omaha Benson High School in 2008. After high school, he attended Metro Community College and took several classes in web design. However, he struggled to make it through the program and eventually withdrew from classes.
He sought out Cara Ehegartner, his former Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Transition Specialist, to help him develop a new vocational plan. Cara helped him during his junior year in high school to explore careers and gain admittance into Metro Community College.
The new plan that Zach and Cara developed included a referral to the ACN Connections program. When he began working with ACN in 2010, Zach had very little work experience since he had focused his time on college course work, and his anxiety prevented him from looking for other jobs. ACN Connections worked with him to develop an updated resumé, complete job applications, and to participate in mock interview sessions with agency staff. They also helped him develop strategies for handling stress and high anxiety situations.
Zach initially took a job as a stocker at a grocery store with the assistance of ACN Connections. He was very excited about this position, but soon learned that he didn't have the physical stamina or speed for a job in this field. This turned out to be a great learning experience for Zach.
ACN Connections and Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation continued to work with Zach to help figure out the best job match possible focusing on his strengths and interests. They completed assessments to identify a list of things he didn’t want in a job, including: no mornings, restaurants, phone work, strict deadlines, or custodial work. He is uncomfortable around a lot of people, noises and smells bother him, and he is anxious with new people and tasks. The assessments also showed Zach's strengths working on a computer, including outstanding keyboarding skills with excellent speed and accuracy. Through this process, Zach determined that he would like to look for a job in the area of proofing, medical transcription, or technical computer support.
Zach and ACN Connections staff continued searching for a job that would be a great fit for him in his community. Claudia Schulte, Employment Specialist at ACN, notes that, “His job journey took him over a year, but we kept trying to find something in his area of interest, keeping in mind his conditions.” This journey paid off when he began working as a Data Entry Operator at Priority Data (P.D.) in April 2011. Working four days a week, Zach is responsible for accurately entering data and completing the work on schedule.
As with all employees, P.D. provides additional training and support as needed. Wendy Foster, Data Entry Supervisor at P.D., says they sometimes need to provide Zach with reminders to stay on task, but this is usually all he needs to proceed with minimal supervision.
Staff at ACN Connections provide on-going support by phone to help the employer address any concerns and to provide guidance to help Zach be successful on the job. ACN Connections staff also attend Zach’s employee performance reviews to provide support and guidance. Wendy says, "Zach's strengths on the job are that he seems to enjoy the task of keying, his major task, with a speed that is at or above our company's minimum requirements. With Zach possessing these two strengths, we feel that he is an asset to P.D. and, with his continued efforts, we expect that he will continue to be a valued employee at P.D. in the future."
Other issues outside the workplace created barriers for Zach. He does not drive and transportation was an issue for him when he began his job search. In the past, he had avoided riding the bus due to anxiety issues. His job coach has worked with him to overcome his concerns and he now rides the bus independently to and from work. Zach says that, "Repetitiveness in riding the bus, knowing what to do, and where to go helped make me comfortable."
Claudia Schulte sums it up for those who know Zach by saying,"Zach is a wonderful young man who has come a long way during the time we've known him."With the connections Zach has made, a good job and the ability to access the community on his own, he is definitely well on his way to meeting his goal of independence!