Yasom Davis

Project SEARCH unleashes the potential of young adults with autism

AJ Drexel Austime

Yasom Davis’ 75-minute commute to his job as a service employee at Philadelphia International Airport is not something he complains about. In fact, it is a triumph and a testament to a program at Drexel University that helps integrate young adults with autism into the workforce.

AJ Drexel Austime

Davis, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, is among the first cohort of students to complete the Project SEARCH program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at the University. Housed under the institute’s Life Course Outcomes Research Program, Project SEARCH provides internships and skills training to young adults with autism spectrum disorders and/or an intellectual disability.

The Autism Institute provides a compelling example of what dedicated researchers can accomplish when they use a multidisciplinary approach to innovation. The interdisciplinary team at the Institute employs unique public health and community-based solutions to address challenges faced by young adults with autism spectrum disorders, especially those in underserved populations who have been largely ignored.

The Life Course Outcomes program is the first to tailor services specifically for young adults on the autism spectrum. The Autism Institute is evaluating the model and plans to widely share guidelines for reproducing its success elsewhere.

Project SEARCH’s early results have been impressive: Four of the eight interns who have completed the curriculum in summer 2017, including Davis, have found career-track employment at the airport. Research shows that only about one-third of young adults with autism are employed within the first two years after graduating from high school.

“The work of Drexel’s Autism Institute is groundbreaking and far-reaching,” says Drexel President John Fry. “Just imagine the enormous potential if we can find ways to expand such initiatives.”

Taking on the future with independence and confidence

When the Philadelphia School District invited Davis to participate in Project SEARCH, he was about to enter his last year of high school. He and his family had no concrete plans for what would happen next, a familiar challenge for young adults with autism and their families.

Davis’ mother, Latrace Nicols, did her research and was impressed by Project SEARCH’s offerings.

“I fell in love with the possibility of him entering the work force, which is something Yasom had always talked about,” she says. “Our motivation was to get him all of the support he could get to fulfill his dreams and goals.”

Our motivation was to get him all of the support he could get to fulfill his dreams and goals.

Davis traveled on his own while in the program, using public transportation for the first time. “That alone was liberating for him, and nerve wracking for us as parents,” Nicols says, “but he showed us his ability to be trusted and handle his affairs outside of our watchful eyes.”

Nicols credits the program with helping her son achieve full-time employment and the confidence to do the job well. “I am certain that he would not have been this open and receptive to the changes had he not gone through the Project SEARCH program first,” she says.

Davis agrees. “If it wasn’t for Project SEARCH, I wouldn’t be working.”

When asked what his goals are when it comes to employment, Davis says, “I’ll stay at the airport and never retire ... I mean, until I retire!”

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