Doing Volunteer Work Helps Autistic Students Learn Skills

Posted: September 04, 1994

WILLINGBORO — Fred, 15, and Kevin, 16, are volunteers at Rancocas Hospital. They help by shredding paper, stuffing envelopes, stapling reports, and doing clerical tasks. Most of all, they're helping themselves.

The two boys are students at the Center for Autistic Children in Willingboro, and their time at the hospital is intended to improve their work and social skills.

"Since it's important for autistic students to be stimulated, we try to introduce community training quickly," said Ellen DeMasi, supervisor of educational programs for the school, "and it's best to teach social and work skills in a natural setting rather than the controlled setting of a school."

Autism is believed to be a neurological impairment, which frequently hampers a person's ability to communicate, DeMasi said. There is no known single cause of autism, which is frequently characterized by repetitive actions. In addition, autistic people often have poor social skills, although they sometimes excel in areas such as mathematics and music.

"They need contact with people, and that is why it is imperative that such students like Fred and Kevin have opportunities to work in places like Rancocas Hospital," DeMasi said.

After Pat Leonard, director of the hospital's volunteer services, agreed to let autistic students work there, she became a booster of such programs.

"They're good volunteers," Leonard said. "Fred, in particular, is a steady worker, and he picks up fast on the work he does."

There are some immediate rewards for the two, who work at the hospital twice a week. "We get to go to the snack bar," said Kevin. "I like to press the buttons on the vending machine."

Fred gets to pick out a newspaper, usually the Washington Post. "It has good comics," he said. "I like Peanuts and Garfield."

The two students, who commute to the center each day from a group home for autistic teenagers in East Windsor, have made social progress since starting their jobs at the hospital's volunteer services office.

"This is something different for them, and most of them respond positively to the work experience," said their teacher, Terri Indrikovic, who accompanies them to the Willingboro center, which is operated by the state Departments of Education and Human Services.

Other students from the center work in the laundry department at Memorial Hospital of Burlington County, and some help clean the Mount Holly offices of the Githens Center for children with cerebral palsy.

Nationwide, about 350,000 people are autistic, including about 12,000 in New Jersey, said Nancy Richardson, executive director of the Center for Outreach and Services for the Autistic Community.

Of the 12,000 in New Jersey, about 3,000 are children, a figure that is rising, Richardson said.

"The figures can vary depending on how you interpret autism, but with diagnoses getting better, the figures are rising," she said. "Sometimes broader definitions are used so a student with autism will get the special education needed."

Putting students such as Fred and Kevin to work is part of a trend in special education, said Carmine DeSopo, superintendent of the Burlington County Special Services School District.

"With autistic students, the whole idea is to make them respond to another person," DeSopo said. "There's a great success rate if you expose them to people while teaching them a skill, and we've found that the more you teach them, the more they can learn."

Autistic students in the special-services district work in hospitals and nursing homes and in the school's landscaping, food-services and industrial- arts outreach programs.

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