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Sayreville, NJ vocational program uses pets to help prepare autism students for jobs

Sayreville vocational program uses pets to help prepare autism students for jobs

Published: Friday, November 11, 2011, 8:00 AM
"Harry" a deaf dog in the C.H.A.N.C.E. (Choose to Help Animals that Need Care Everyday) Program at the Center for Lifelong Learning, licks his lips in anticipation as he is giving the sign to sit for a treat by program creator Jennifer George. The program's goal is to train adult students with autism and developmental disabilities to work with animals so they may be able to get jobs with veterinarians or in other animal care facilities.

SAYREVILLE — It took a bit of coaxing from a school aide for Yasli "Cecilia" Martinez to pet an American bulldog named Harry who visited her Sayreville classroom.

But it was worth it when Martinez, 17, who is cognitively impaired and legally blind, touched the canine’s fur. The special-needs student relaxed and began to smile.

The simple interaction was the first step in a vocational program to train older students with autism and multiple disabilities to care for animals. The Center for Lifelong Learning, a public special-education school, began the program this fall in partnership with the Sayreville Pet Adoption Center to prepare students for jobs at shelters, pet groomers and veterinarians’ offices as they age out of the school system by 22.

"A lot of the struggles with these kids entering the workforce is being able to complete the tasks on their own," said Jennifer George, an occupational therapist who developed the program. "The workforce expects a certain productivity, and for some of these kids that’s very hard."

The students’ disabilities range from mild to severe. One has cerebral palsy and suffers from seizures. Another survived a stroke and can no longer speak. Others who have autism wear noise-canceling headphones because of a hypersensitivity to sound or carry a tablet that helps them communicate.

The program, Choose to Help Animals that Need Care Every Day — or CHANCE — is one of a number of opportunities in New Jersey for special-needs students as they enter adulthood. Schools are required to provide transition services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services collaborates with school districts to help students plan for their future starting as early as age 14.

Staff at the ARC of New Jersey, a family advocacy group, assess people’s abilities and interests to find suitable paid work for them — whether it’s creating gift baskets or providing security at the Picatinny Arsenal — and then provide on-the-job training until they are comfortable enough to continue on their own, said Celine Fortin, ARC’s associate executive director.

"Having a job really helps a person to have some definition in their life and some self-confidence and pride in what they do," Fortin said.

autism-pets-2.JPG18-year-old Robert Henrion with his teacher, Jessica Fresendo

Despite the state of the job market, she said, "we’ve been having a pretty good success rate placing people at competitive jobs in the community."

People with autism may find it difficult to interact with co-workers and supervisors, said Autism New Jersey Executive Director Linda Meyer, but there are benefits to employers.

"Many individuals with autism like routine and insist on sameness, and once they get on a schedule, they’re probably your most reliable employee," she said.

Allies, another nonprofit organization, launched a program with the Trenton Marriott to train people with special needs to work in the food and beverage or hospitality industries. An initiative in partnership with Mercer County’s parks provides employment at a farm growing produce. The programs are supported by state funding.

Through "job sampling," the students at the Center for Lifelong Learning have been placed at sites such as Kohl’s, ShopRite and a local library, with the schools providing transportation and training, officials said. One has turned into a paid job, a part-time gig cleaning dishes for the Monroe Township Board of Education food-services department.

But George, from the Center for Lifelong Learning, wanted to give students an option they might be interested in, not just a job they can do.

Rahway resident Elaine Small’s 16-year-old son, Ernie, who has worked at a supermarket, is excited about the program.

"He told me that he would love working with dogs and cats," Small said.

George brought her two certified therapy dogs with her to class for the program’s first phase, Doggone Safe. She taught the students when it’s okay to pet a dog and how to assume a tree-like pose when confronted by a snarling canine.

She adopted Harry from a Sayreville pet shelter when she saw a sign saying he was deaf.

"He was deemed the bad dog, the unadoptable dog, the wild one," George said. "I thought he was the dog for me. I could see the potential."

She taught Harry 31 commands in modified American sign language, she said. In class, she made gestures in the dog’s face, telling him to "sit" and "stay."

"A dog with special needs helping kids with special needs? It just seemed to fit," George said. Eight students have expressed a strong interest in proceeding with the program, and later phases will teach them how to feed and groom the dogs.

George said she created small flip books breaking each task down into illustrated steps. She plans to play recordings of what the inside of a shelter sounds like so the students get used to working in a loud and busy environment.

The Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission operates the Center for Lifelong Learning and six other schools in Piscataway, Sayreville and Monroe for special-needs children. Almost one-third of the students come from outside Middlesex County, their tuition paid by the sending districts, said Superintendent Mark Finkelstein.

Programs involving dogs in the commission’s other schools have proved successful, Finkelstein said, because the students quickly bond with the animals.

"We’ve taught a variety of skills, including life skills, through the use of dogs," he said. "It breaks down an awful lot of barriers for the students. Some of the students are interacting with dogs for the very first time in their lives."

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