This non-residential program through The Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research has helped Ethan Fitts gain the independence he once thought unattainable.
Walking into his job interview at The Rawls Course, Ethan Fitts reminded himself of three little words:
Just be yourself.
But on that chilly day in December 2022, he was a little fancier version of himself in his suit and a tie, gaining compliments from his soon-to-be coworkers that he went full out.
“I wasn't nervous,” Fitts said. “I was pretty excited.”
Fitts carried himself with a newfound confidence because he was well prepared for this moment through his time with Texas Tech University's Transition Academy: a non-residential program through The Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research that works to meet the needs of young adults 18 to 30 years of age who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and aspire to be competitively employed.
Instructors not only coached Ethan on his job application and interview skills, but also his courses at the academy from July 2021 to December 2022, emphasizing job, social and general life skills that transformed his future.
“I've seen growth in me,” Ethan said. “I've seen me succeed and grow from a little kid, where I wasn't positive about myself, to being more positive about myself. It really makes me happy.”
It makes his mother, Renee Fitts, more than happy. She could almost burst with pride about the transformation she sees in her son, who first started showing signs of ASD as a baby.
Doctors explained Ethan was “health impaired” and he began to receive services to help with his development. Despite Renee's efforts, he was not officially diagnosed with ASD until he was 15 years old – a teenager attending high school in Roswell, N.M.
“Back in the day, they didn't know how to label it and the screening processes weren't there,” Renee recalled. “I had to ask and ask and ask and advocate.”
And advocate she has. So much so that Renee encouraged Ethan to switch his graduation plan to an ability-based diploma so he could graduate without state-required assessments, get a job out of high school and continue to live under her roof.
“At that point, he did not have independent living skills,” she said. “He did not know how to do his laundry or anything. Mom did everything for him.”
She also was worried about the transition Ethan would face after he graduated from high school. The football coach there knew Ethan was a sports fanatic and took him under his wing Ethan's freshman year after he was sitting alone during lunch. He made Ethan manager of the football team for the next four years, which meant when Roswell High School won back-to-back state championships, Ethan got a ring with all his other teammates.
They even gave him the nickname “Hype Man” for always encouraging the crowd to cheer.
“That has been Ethan's biggest struggle in leaving high school is leaving his team,” Renee said. “He felt part of something.”
Little did Renee know his next opportunity for camaraderie would come as a tip from team members of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) at Ethan's high school who toured The Burkhart Center.
“They brought me back a brochure because they were really impressed,” she remembered. “So, again, I took the bull by the horns.”
Banking on The Burkhart Center
Renee dove into researching The Burkhart Center and even contacted faculty members. As she relayed her findings to Ethan, he began to envision new possibilities for himself.
“I liked how the kids in the program graduated and got a job,” he said. “I wanted to learn about life skills and how to make a living by myself.”
With Ethan's older sister already studying at Texas Tech, Renee and Ethan were comforted and on board. That all changed when her nursing program relocated her to another community.
“I was going to have two kids in different cities, and no sister for him to live with,” Renee said. “It almost crushed him because I was just like, ‘It's off the table. There's no way.'”
Even Ethan's IEP team encouraged him to attend college in New Mexico and not leave home. But Ethan disagreed. In Renee's words, he set out to prove everyone wrong.
“He was excited,” she laughed. “He was very much a great advocate for himself in saying that he was up for the challenge.”
It was not until Renee connected with a potential classmate's mother after a tour of The Burkhart Center that she finally gave in.
“This mother was like, ‘We're here in Lubbock. We will support Ethan if he ever needs a ride or help,'” she said. “I think I was on the phone with that poor lady for three hours. It took her soul to put my heart at ease.”
The compromise Renee settled on was to sign a six-month lease at Ethan's apartment – essentially a trial run.
“If he was miserable, then we would bring him home,” she assured herself at the time.
Two-and-a-half years later, that has never happened.
Ethan graduated from high school, moved to his single-bedroom apartment in Lubbock, and was ready to begin classes at the Transition Academy within the course of three weeks. Renee gave him a crash course on everything laundry, cooking and hygiene. She installed a video doorbell, a camera in his kitchen to help with cooking questions and helped him set his alarms for class.
Ethan moved into his apartment, and she stayed elsewhere in Lubbock to test their setup.
“He did that successfully,” she said. “The next day was his first day of school, so I waited for him until he got home and we talked about his day. Then I came back to New Mexico and left him there.”
Renee cried the entire way home. Ethan, on the other hand…
“I think he was still in party mode,” she joked. “He was on his own and it was a fun new adventure.”
Trusting Transition Academy
Ethan attended classes Monday through Thursday from 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. He immediately liked the small class sizes and the friendships he began to form.
Many of his peers were impressed he lived alone.
“That was something they strive to achieve, so he was used as an example,” Renee said. “I think that boosted his confidence and his self-esteem.”
Renee credits the success of Ethan's living situation to technology. They FaceTime when he has a laundry problem or simply when he needs conversation. And when Ethan slept through his alarm and missed the bus, Renee got to phone the mother who promised to support him.
She happily followed through by driving Ethan to campus.
“He's such a people-pleaser and a perfectionist, that really kind of shut him down that day,” Renee recalled. “But he bounced back, and he went to classes the next day.”
Ethan began to participate in independent living skills training which covered everything from personal hygiene and household chores to fitness classes/activities and personal safety.
“Transition Academy helped me make sure I'm safe,” Ethan said. “They told me to not open the door for strangers. If it's somebody you know, you can open it.”
The Burkhart Center even introduced Ethan to a much more comfortable form of cooking.
“He was very apprehensive about utilizing the stove, and he still is,” Renee said. “But we got him an air fryer that aligned with the one The Burkhart Center had, because they were starting to teach students with an air fryer for safety. He likes that much better.”
Other curriculum included social skills training which taught Ethan how to accept constructive criticism and alternative opinions, plus give and receive compliments and apologies. These lessons not only revealed how to develop and maintain friendships and relationships, but decipher appropriate behavior for various settings.
Before long, through all the support he received at Transition Academy, Ethan became a leader.
“They had him be part of fundraising events and that makes Ethan feel good,” Renee said. “That's kind of the same thing with his high school football team – he felt like a big man on campus.”
Additionally, the Transition Academy provided opportunities for self-discovery through the creation of artwork later displayed in Lubbock's First Friday Art Trail, weekly music classes taught by a licensed musical therapist, and an annual talent show.
“Ethan was the emcee of their talent show since he didn't want to do a talent on his own,” Renee said, remembering how proud she felt watching him make strides in public speaking.
Ethan also gained hands-on experience and specific training with vocational and job skills instruction that helped him identify his personal strengths and develop a resume. They prepared him not only for job interviews, but the importance of following rules and directions in the workplace through on-site internships every semester.
Internships were actually Ethan's favorite part of the Transition Academy (along with birthday lunches and field trips).
“My internships taught me how to be successful and work harder,” Ethan said. “I got to make new friends and I like to hang out with friends.”
One of Ethan's internships was at Quiznos, The Burkhart Center's fully functional restaurant that offers paid vocational opportunities for its students. His other internships catered to his love for sports: the Robert H. Ewalt Student Recreation Center and The Rawls Course.
Just as Renee always has, The Burkhart Center advocated for Ethan's best interests.
“That was the very first time they ever partnered with the golf course,” Renee said. “But they know how much Ethan loves sports, so they were able to secure that for him.”
Ready for The Rawls Course
During Ethan's internship at The Rawls Course, he answered the phone, worked in the pro shop and helped on the course. Not to mention, he admired the Texas Tech Men's Golf Team.
“I liked being outdoors, meeting new people, becoming friends with them and helping them out,” Ethan said.
Once the Transition Academy helped Ethan secure his part-time job at The Rawls Course after his graduation in December 2022, Ethan began to work in the golf cart barn. He makes sure at least 30 carts are washed, moved and ready for the day; checks the tees and tee boxes; sets up the range and preps for tournaments.
“I enjoy driving the carts and seeing other people be happy on the golf course,” Ethan said.
His contentment is evident in his job performance. Ethan has done so well he earned a raise.
“He has more love and excitement for a job than ever before,” Renee said. “He wanted to work at a place where he felt normal, and I think that's what the golf course provides him.”
When Ethan is not at work, he enjoys the scenery around his apartment complex, rides scooters and stays involved with his alma mater: The Burkhart Center.
Even so, when it came time for Ethan to sign a new apartment lease, Renee went ahead and gave him a choice.
“I thought for sure when he graduated from The Burkhart Center he would want to return home,” she said. “So, I asked him, ‘Do you want to come back to Roswell? Get a job here and be here with us? We want to make sure you're happy.'”
Ethan's answer was, “Oh, no. I'm living my best life.”
And he owes it all to three advocates: himself, his parents, and the Transition Academy.
“If you're interested in The Burkhart Center, you have to just tell yourself and your parents you can do it and you will succeed,” Ethan said. “This program will help you out very much.
“I would like to say thank you to The Burkhart Center. Thank you for always being there for me. You're the reason why I have this job and you're the reason why I'm succeeding. I wish you guys the best.”