With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Janice Magness is the interim co-director of the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research and the director of the Transition Academy for young adults at the Burkhart Center at Texas Tech University. The academy equips autistic students leaving high school and helps them gain life skills. Magness graduated from Texas Tech University with a Bachelor of Science degree in education. Magness taught 30 years in Lubbock public schools working primarily with students with autism and learning disabilities.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: How do the Burkhart Center and Transition Academy operate? Can you tell us about the Burkhart Center filling a gap in education?
Janice Magness: I run the Transition Academy for young adults, within the Burkhart Center. I currently have 15 students. They range in age from 18 to 30. One of the criteria to get in is that you have to have graduated high school. That being said, it can be a special ed diploma, a regular diploma, gotten a GED or even been home-schooled.
We want students to come here having finished their academic requirements. What we stress is working on life skills, social skills and job skills. It is a three-year program although you can finish in less time. We follow the university’s schedule, even though we are not a part of their academic catalog. We have breaks between semesters, so no one really complains about having more time off.
We offer them a fitness program, a nutritionist, music therapy and really emphasize art. Several of our teachers are job coaches because we want them to have a job waiting for them when they finish the program.
Trib+Edu: What creates a need for this sort of center, a lack of social emphasis in public education?
Magness: For people with autism, the main thing missing for them to get into work or have friends is that social piece.
Most of my students are high functioning, but they don’t have good social skills. They might be socially inappropriate. It is hard for them to go to a job interview and get hired anywhere without help because they don’t know how to answer questions or they might just sit there and not greet the person. They don’t have good presentation skills. We teach them how to do a resume, how to do a job interview.
Our students, on the autism spectrum, are typically very bright, and communicate very well but they might not know how to heat a meal in the microwave. They might put something in there covered in foil. They wouldn’t know what to do if the lights went out. We’ve had to teach them laundry. We teach them how to sit down at the table as a group and eat, as well as making simple meals.
Trib+Edu: What is the expectation for these students when they finish the program?
Magness: When they get their certificate from the Burkhart Center, the goal is that they can live on their own, hopefully drive and have a job waiting for them, even if it is part-time employment.
We are trying to integrate them into society. I taught in public schools for 30 years in elementary and early middle school. Once these kids graduate from high school, their umbrella of special ed services is over. A lot of these students, they graduated from high school but they weren’t necessarily going to college, so they sat at home and watched TV, didn’t know how to get a job.
There is a huge need for transitioning this population into society, into jobs, into making friends. Helping mom and dad with the bills. Learning to drive so they don’t have to rely on people taking them places, or always having to use public transportation. We work on making their own doctors appointments, keeping track of any medication. Independence is where we are headed for the Transition Academy.
That is just one aspect of the Burkhart Center. We also do research and write grants. We have an early childhood intervention program from kids from 2 to 6 years old. We have a behavior clinic. The part I know most about is the Transition Academy.
Trib+Edu: What is missing in public schools for the autism community?
Magness: Public schools are mandated to help those with special needs and provide certain services. When they graduate as old as 22, that is it. You might have speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy — but once you graduate, those services are gone. It offers this support system that drops off when they graduate.
Trib+Edu: How do you smooth the transition if those services end at high school?
Magness: If you have a child on the autism spectrum, you need to start planning for their future by the fifth grade. By that time, you have a good idea of if they are high functioning.
A lot of people with autism do go on to college and graduate. There are also a lot of people with autism that won’t graduate, even if they are intelligent and go on to be successful. Those kinds of people tend to have a strong support system. What we are overlooking is a lot of people from rural areas. Once they get out of high school, they live in a small town where there are no jobs for them. There might not be any further education or opportunities for them to transition into to have something to do and earn a living. A lot of these kiddos live at home — and that is it. They just don’t have the opportunities. We try to access their likes and dislikes to put them into jobs that they want to do. Really, just pushing for them to have some independence.