In the face of new studies predicting that 1 in 88 children will be born with autism by age 8, Chapel Haven West is a postsecondary school that teaches adults on the autism spectrum how to be successful. The students graduating Saturday will tell you they have gained important skills over the 24 months in this residential program – such as how
to go to college, manage an apartment, take the bus around town, learn vocational skills, make friends, and most importantly, how to communicate with confidence.
“I have learned to be patient with everyone,” says Carter Barker, 21, who came to Chapel Haven West from his hometown of Marshall, MN. “Now, I can cope with the
stresses of daily life much easier.”
During his time at Chapel Haven West, Carter worked at an accounting firm in Tucson,
took college classes in accounting, learned to cook and clean for himself, made
friends and learned how to travel independently throughout the Tucson community.
Carter impressed so many people, he was even offered a plum job, working the front desk at the Autism Society in Tucson.
The ability of young adults to fly the roost and learn to succeed on their own has
become even more meaningful as the Centers for Disease Control recently reported a 20% increase in the autism diagnosis. While experts aren’t sure why the diagnosis is on the rise, they are clear that quality transition programs that help groom adolescents for success are more needed than ever.
N icholas Bujalski, 28, who came to Chapel Haven West from North Carolina,
fully enjoyed his residential experience. Among his accomplishments, he learned
to budget for his monthly groceries, laundry and recreation activities, manage
an apartment, and take college-level classes in social communication at the University of Arizona. Along the way, he nurtured passions, such as his continuing interest in martial arts. Nick snagged two first place medals at the 13th annual World Dang So Doo Union Championships, furthering his status as a green belt. Nick also completed job
internships including working for a local accounting firm. As he graduates, he
has two jobs already lined up.
Asked what the biggest plus of Chapel Haven West has been, Nick replies: “Empowering other people. Life is not always easy, but from my life experiences I can help others
learn how to be successful.” And, he notes, he’s gained a great group of friends.
Chapel Haven West opened in 2008 in Tucson, AZ and provides residential transition and
lifelong supports for adults 18+ on the autism spectrum or those who struggle
with social communication. The program is a satellite of Chapel Haven, Inc., founded in 1972 by parents and dedicated to providing lifelong supports for adults with cognitive and social disabilities. Chapel Haven’s other two programs are based in New Haven, CT.
This 24-month transition program focuses in four key areas: independent living,
self-determination, college/vocation success, and social communication skills.
Students live in an apartment complex a few blocks from the University of Arizona. The program’s close proximity to the University of Arizona provides a rich array of benefits for Chapel Haven West students, including classes, working out at the University’s Recreation Center, involvement in the university’s state-of-the-art SALT Center and job shadowing opportunities.
Chapel Haven West has Social Communicative Competence (SCC) as its core component. With two speech-language pathologists on staff, both trained in the social thinking model pioneered by Michelle Garcia Winner, students learn the appropriate interpretation and use of nonverbal language in a variety of settings. The students describe the SCC lessons as “learning how to define sarcasm; how to tell if someone is interested or just playing along to keep you happy; how to appropriately exit and enter a conversation and how to balance things so you’re not just constantly talking about yourself.”
The SCC lessons aren’t learned in a vacuum. The students can then take what they’ve learned and go out and practice those lessons in the real world with the help of the staff: in the college classroom, in the work setting and in the apartment with roommate interactions. In addition, students enroll for two years in a college-level, credit-earning social communicative competency (SCC) class held on the campus of the University of Arizona and co-taught by Chapel Haven West staff and clinicians in the university’s Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences Department.
Three of the seven graduates are enrolled in college studies, thanks to the help of the program. Another key goal is helping students choose vocational paths. All of the graduates have rotated through a series of work assignments, from serving as docents at the Reid Park Zoo, working in retail and food service settings, participating in the hectic tax season at an accounting firm, or helping guests at the golf pro shop at the JW
Marriott. Several graduates now have paying jobs – some with The Home Depot.
The students come from many states, including: CA, MN, AZ, NC, and TN. What they have in common is their ability to master challenges related to having a disability in order to pursue independent lives.