Autistic students find helpful outlet at MSU
Correction:A previous version of the story said "When it comes to food, Sung said sometimes students with autism spectrum disorder cannot work anywhere food is readily available because they will impulsively eat it."
This statement a mistake on the part of the State News. In response to this error, Dr. Sung wrote to clarify, as the original statement does not reflect the strengths and needs of the autism community. The disputed statement refers to an unrelated disorder, Prader Willi syndrome. Readers should be aware that this comment was reported out of context and should not have been published in this article.
In many ways, computer science senior Anthony Capriglione is like any other college student — he’s excited to be done with school this upcoming December and he’s currently on the hunt for jobs.
However, what differentiates Capriglione from others is that he has autism spectrum disorder.
“Most people act surprised,” he said. “They don’t think I have it.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorder is, “a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.”
For Capriglione, getting diagnosed in the fifth grade was a sort of relief. He said he felt some sort of acceptance, as he had always known there was something different about him in school.
Because Autism Spectrum Disorder affects social and communication behaviors, it affects different students in different ways. For Capriglione, talking to teachers and working in groups is hard, he said. He said a couple years ago, he was not feeling very good about finding a job after college.
That was when assistant professor of rehabilitation counseling Connie Sung and her Assistive Social Skills and Employment Training, and Employment Preparation and Social Skills Training programs stepped in.
ASSET and EPASS are two programs Sung has run at MSU since the fall of 2014.
Students start with ASSET in the fall for 10 weeks and then transition to EPASS in the spring for 12 weeks. ASSET teaches the students soft skills through six different modules. While EPASS prepares them to step into the workforce.
Sung said the six different ASSET modules include communication, professionalism, problem solving, critical thinking, enthusiasm and positive attitude.
“So those, based on different research studies, have shown a lot of the time people with disabilities or even general public, they lose their jobs not because they’re not able to do the job,” she said. “It’s because of their social aspect. Maybe offending people without knowing, having difficulty taking perspective or communicating just in the workplace.”
Capriglione said his condition makes it hard for him to talk to people sometimes. Sung said there are many different ways autism spectrum disorder can manifest itself in a person’s life, ranging from nervous habits to dietary and communication issues.
Sung said she knows one student who remembers every single football player and all of the facts about them. He cannot miss a single game. If the team he’s rooting for loses, he gets upset to the point he cannot even go into work. He also gets incredibly nervous for the games and cannot focus on anything else.
“Can you imagine there’s a game but you have to go to work?” Sung said. “You tell the boss, ‘I cannot come because there is a game tomorrow.’ Or, ‘my team just lost last night, I cannot come into work tomorrow.’”
Although these traits can be impairments to work with, Sung stressed they also can be used as an asset in the workplace.
An student with autism spectrum disorder’s memory was a strength when he had the entire inventory of his warehouse memorized. Sung said he didn’t need to refer to a list when checking if everything was there. The supervisor loved him, she said. However, he arranged all the items in inventory his way, not the suggested way. On one occasion when he decided to take a day off work, the warehouse went into chaos. No one could find anything anywhere, Sung said.
Sung said the other positive traits people with autism spectrum disorder have are an attention to detail, a need to follow rules and generally a great memory. However, many people don’t focus on this aspect, Sung said. She believes there are many misconceptions about those with autism spectrum disorder, which is part of the reason she started the ASSET and EPASS programs.
“I really want people, when they see people with disability, they see through some of their restrictions, some of their limitations, but they see what are their strengths that we can really use,” Sung said. “I would like to say that I personally learn a lot from people with disabilities and I would like people to treat everybody equally because everybody has their potential, has their talent, that we can all learn from each other and help each other.”
Assistant professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations Angela Hall is a consultant for ASSET and EPASS and also believes people can learn so much from the participants in the program.
Hall works with graduate students to develop the curriculum for the programs. She said the hardest part is to state things clearly so even when taken literally they will still make sense, but also in a way that’s not insulting or limiting. She also said the programs are important because they make students believe they can get a job, which will help them get a job.
“We feel that they should have a way to work and feel societal importance from earning an income,” Hall said. “It feels good to be able to help them on the right path.”
Hall also said people with disabilities are woefully underrepresented in the workplace, which is unfortunate as one in 68 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I just hope employers can see the value and can continue attracting people to apply for their job and hire them,” Hall said. “Once they’re there, treat them as a contributing and valuable member of their organization.”
One business person who sees the potential people with autism spectrum disorder bring to the table is business project manager Taryn Coetzee. Coetzee works for Consumers Energy now, but back in 2014 she was still working on her master’s degree in the field of human resources and labor relations at MSU. It was at this time she approached Hall about an independent study, and Hall put her to work developing the curriculum for the ASSET and EPASS programs.
When people think of diverse hiring, they might think of hiring someone of a different race or religion, which doesn’t include people with disabilities, Coetzee said.
“The initial step into the workforce, regardless of what job it is, can be really challenging,” she said.
That’s why she liked working on the curriculum for the ASSET and EPASS programs, because they were cross functional and pulling from many disciplines, she said. They were more likely to reach their goal of success for students with autism spectrum disorder.
“It’s that solution orientation of this program that I really appreciated,” she said. “I found it very rewarding.”
For some students like Capriglione, the program has been very effective, he said. Although he is still sometimes nervous talking to people, he said he is much better than he used to be in middle school and high school. Also, since graduating from the EPASS program in 2015, he has managed to land a couple internships with companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. He said his achievement was partly because of the ASSET and EPASS programs.
“I don’t think I would’ve gotten them without the skills I learned,” he said. “They taught me the soft skills I need and the expectations I have to do the job effectively.”
Nowadays, Capriglione works with computers Tuesdays and Thursdays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Capriglione’s dream job when he graduates is an information technology job with a big company.
Sometimes Capriglione films ASSET and EPASS sessions for Sung so participants can see their progress as they learn and grow, just like he did, he said.
“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today or the person I am today without it,” he said.