PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Like many young adults with autism, Jason Bathurst faces a rugged job market when he graduates from high school this week.
But his chances got a boost this year because he traded his senior year in school for one at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center.
There, he crafted a resume and a PowerPoint presentation about himself. He learned elevator etiquette and how to stock supplies, transport people by wheelchair and make deliveries throughout the hospital.
“Good morning, sir,” the cheerful young Portsmouth man said last week as he made his way from room to room on the fourth floor at Maryview. “I’m going to put my name on your board, so you’ll know who I am.”
The student in scrubs is part of a Virginia Commonwealth University study that’s trying to find ways to help young adults with autism make the transition from high school to the working world through Project SEARCH, which trains people with disabilities in hospital jobs.
For Bathurst, 22, it has meant learning to get to work by bus, making eye contact with patients and chatting them up a bit, and following an itemized list of “Have To Do’s.”
“I don’t do any medical stuff,” he said, pushing a cart with supplies and written reminders. “I don’t have the training for that. I like it because I get to work with the patients. They need someone to talk to, and they need someone to give them supplies. That’s what I would want if I were in their shoes.”
While autism treatment in the past has focused mostly on children, more attention is being turned to young adults. One study shows more than half of young adults with autism did not go to college or work during the first two years after leaving high school.
An estimated 1 in 68 children in the country has autism, a 30 percent increase from two years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The developmental disorder impairs communication and social interaction, and it sometimes causes repetitive patterns of behavior.
In Richmond, Va. five years ago, VCU partnered with the state rehabilitation department and Bon Secours hospitals in Midlothian and Henrico County to train high schoolers with autism in entry-level hospital jobs.
Eighty-seven percent of those trained at the hospital landed jobs after graduation, compared with 6 percent in a control group of students with autism who stayed at school.
Based on that success, the university received a $2.5 million grant last year from a federal disability agency to expand the project, which is how six high school seniors in South Hampton Roads began their training at Maryview in September.
The seniors, who range from 18 to 22 years old, come from Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Suffolk. They are taught by the Southeastern Cooperative Educational Programs, which educates students with disabilities throughout the region.
The instructors — a VCU site coordinator, a job coach from Didlake Inc. and a SECEP teacher — build the day as much like a real job as possible. Students must get to the hospital by walking or taking a bus or cab, rather than relying on a parent.
Bathurst’s mother, Paulette, said she was skeptical about her son getting to work on his own.
“I was petrified,” she said. “And yes, I followed the bus. I knew he got on it, but was he going to get off? He had no problem. He doesn’t fear asking questions.”
They’re called interns rather than students. Their classroom is called their office. And they wear scrubs, brown ones to distinguish them from other hospital workers.
During the first hour or so, they learn job interviewing techniques, resume writing and on-the-job skills that some people take for granted, such as calling your employer if you’re sick or late.
There’s also more nuanced social instruction, such as: How much cake do you take at office parties? When is it OK to make jokes or join in a conversation with others? When it’s time for a break, what do you do, and when should you come back? (They tell the interns to set an alarm on their cellphones.)
And what do you do if there’s a Code Blue — a medical emergency?
The interns rotate through three unpaid internships during the school year: one in the cafeteria, one unpacking and distributing supplies and one helping patients on the floors.
Holly Whittenburg, the VCU site coordinator at Maryview, said the instructors have broken down jobs into easy-to-follow lists that the students can use on cellphones or charts.
The internships give them experience in different areas and gauge their interest and aptitude in various positions.
Jasmine Hudgins, 21, from Portsmouth, makes her way through the cafeteria one day in April, cleaning empty tables and straightening the chairs. She also restocks bins of disposable utensils, napkins and potato chips.
In another part of Maryview, Bobby Parker, 20, from Virginia Beach, works in the materials department. He opens cardboard boxes of disposable gloves and stacks them on the shelves, ready to be delivered to rooms.
Asked if he likes the job, he said, “It keeps bread on the table. That is, if they’d pay me.”
What’s his favorite part of the job? “Leaving.”
He smiles a little and then says, “And being around Mr. Jesse, the old man, of course.”
That would be Jesse Vallejos, the materials distribution supervisor.
“He calls me old man, and I call him young man,” Vallejos said. “Bobby works hard, he takes the job seriously, but we try to have fun, too.”
Whittenburg reminds Parker that it’s OK to make jokes, as long it’s at appropriate times.
“I burped, but I said ‘excuse me,’” he tells one of his instructors.
He said he hopes to work as a stocker in a Wal-Mart or Toys “R” Us someday.
The VCU project has been around for about five years, but the idea for the Project SEARCH model goes back to 1996, when Erin Riehle, the director of the emergency department at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, was struck by two things: Many of their entry-level jobs had fairly simple tasks but high turnover rates. And since the hospital served a lot of children with disabilities, wouldn’t it make sense to hire more people with disabilities?
She worked with special education experts to develop a curriculum.
From that beginning, the idea spread to 200 sites in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland and Australia.
On 4 North, Bathurst greets patients and employees as he does his rounds, filling water pitchers and hand-disinfectant dispensers. He also stocks the pantry with disposable cups and passes out food trays.
“I basically help the unit out,” Bathurst said. “The best part of the job is I help people who need help. Nurses appreciate the help, too. That’s the No. 1 thing, I like to feel wanted and needed.”
“He shines,” said Kim Kennedy, nurse manager on the unit. “He has a checklist, and by the end of the day, he’ll say, ‘I’m free, Miss Kim, is there anything else you want me to do?’”
Paulette Bathurst said her son refers to his charges as “my patients” but told her he can’t tell her anything about them “because of those initials.”
Did he mean HIPAA, his mother asked, the federal patient privacy law?
Yes, he said, that’s it.
She said he struggled a little over the death of one of his patients. But he knows that can happen in a hospital.
“Sometimes, when people are upset, it’s kind of hard for me, especially when they are going through a hard time,” Jason Bathurst said. “I want to help them the best I can. I feel sorry for them. That’s the hardest part, when they’re upset.”
During a year-end “Reflections and Direction” event last week, Bathurst went over what he has learned and what he has to offer in a PowerPoint presentation:
“You should hire me because I am very helpful and willing to go the extra mile.”
What he’s learned from Project SEARCH:
“Work hard, and don’t give up. If you give respect, you get respect.”
And his goals:
“Get a job. Rent an apartment. Buy or rent a home.”
His long-range goal is to have a family: “That’s a dream and a hope.”
He hopes the past year of Project SEARCH will lead to a job after he graduates June 6:
“I work Monday through Friday. I don’t work Saturday — at least, not yet.”