Texas Tech's Autism Center Receives $500K Workforce Grant

Classes in life skills, job skills will benefit employers and autistic employees.

Texas Tech University’s Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research has received a $500,000 grant from Gov. Rick Perry’s office through the Texas Workforce Commission.

The Wagner-Peyser grant, which funds a partnership with Worksource of the South Plains, implements training both for employers and for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to improve job placement and overall success of autistic people in the workplace. The renewable grant could garner a total $1.5 million over three years.

"On behalf of the Texas Tech University System, I want to thank Gov. Rick Perry for the confidence he has placed in the administrators and researchers of the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research," said Chancellor Kent Hance. "The Wagner-Peyser grant will enable us to help improve the quality of life for those with autism, their families, their educators and now their employers."

Martin Aguirre, director of Worksource of the South Plains, said it is important to remove employment barriers for different populations, so that more people can enter the workforce.

"Autistic individuals can participate in the workforce and become increasingly self-sufficient," said Aguirre. "The aspect of employer training to employ autistic individuals is necessary so that employers can identify the special needs and conditions that are required to hire and supervise people with autism."

Burkhart Center director Robin Lock says they are building a life-skills/job skills training program to help adults with ASD become more self-sufficient members of society in order to function in a vocational setting.

"We are looking at a twofold approach," Lock said. "We are going to prepare employers so they’ll know how to work with these individuals by responding to their unique characteristics and needs. Then we will provide the employers with some hands-on materials and a support system where they can call and get advice from the Burkhart Center.

Simultaneously, Lock said, students with autism will complete three semesters of job training and social skills classes to prepare them for the workforce. The first semester encompasses classroom learning, the second provides three months of training on the job, and the third semester focuses on social skills training – one of the hardest objectives for people with autism to conquer.

"What we find with people with autism is that it is not performing the tasks of the job that gets them," Lock said. "It is the social part of the job. They may not understand that there is a mechanism for how to go to someone and express their needs. That is what we’re working toward improving, and that is why we have faith that this program will generate positive results."

Lock said the partnership hopes to train 30 individuals with ASD in both job skills and life skills, and up to 45 local employers who will eventually place the center’s clients in jobs.

Aguirre believes this is a win-win situation for all involved.

"The addition of this segment of our population to the workforce coupled with the additional training will increase the number of employed individuals and increase the retention of these workers in their respective occupations. It will aid the workers and employers in making appropriate choices for careers that have sustainability for both parties in the workforce equation."

CONTACT: Robin Lock, director, Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research, at (806) 742-1997 ext. 288, or robin.lock@ttu.edu;
Martin Aguirre, chief executive officer, WorkSource of the South Plains,
(806) 744-1987.