Autism Into Adulthood

Challenges due to autism don’t end with childhood. There are a few programs throughout the state focusing on helping those crossing into a non-typical adulthood to navigate campus life, career options and more.

By Dwain Hebda Photography by Rett Peek and Courtesy Theresa White

Project Search participant sandi wright on the job.

Project Search participant sandi wright on the job.


Like a lot of college grads, Frank Hellmer is looking to land that first job, sweats his student loans and dreams about what the future holds. He’s currently working as an intern with Friendship Community Care in Russellville, where he began receiving care at age 3, and holds out hope that this will lead to a full-time job there.

Unlike a lot of college grads, Hellmer graduated summa cum laude from college with two bachelor degrees and an associate degree, earning an impressive 3.94 grade point average. He knocked out the four-part CPA exam in December, averaging 95.25 percent per section, on the first try. He’s currently working on his master’s degree in health informatics.

Autism doesn’t make the list of his accomplishments, of course, but it’s been there, too. Overcoming the challenges the condition presents is one continuing source of pride for Hellmer, both in the classroom and in the workplace.

“I am proud of the fact that I conquered my fears and helped prove that autism is not a barrier, even against one of the hardest professional exams in existence,” he said.

Frank Hellmer

Frank Hellmer

None of us is guaranteed happiness and fulfillment in life, and achieving such is rarely unimpeded. Setbacks and disappointments, as everyone knows, are part of the game. The future’s inherent uncertainty is inseparable from its opportunity, and if you ask, you’ll find what worries parents most, particularly parents of special needs children, are the questions about what lies ahead.

“I think those feelings are magnified,” said Nancy Wells, a professional counselor and executive director of AbleTalks, an organization with the goal of establishing independent continued education for young adults with autism and other disabilities. “The kids want—just like any other 20-something— a career, love and future. They want to know, ‘When am I going to get where I'm going? How do I get what I want?’ Parents’ worries are magnified because there are vulnerabilities,” she said.

Wells sees this daily through her work, and also in her own family. Her daughters—Maggie, 27‚ and Molly, 24—were diagnosed with moderate to severe autism, and helping them on their march toward independence was its own education, years before Nancy decided to return to college and become a therapist.

“When my youngest daughter wanted to establish an independent life, that’s when I learned about what we call the drop-off point,” she said. “Twenty years ago, institutionalization was recommended to me and other parents. Now these kids are grown up; they’re in their 20s and offer so much more than anybody thought.

“But we haven’t educated them, we haven't trained them. It hasn't been there for them. There are agencies offering opportunities, but as far as housing and higher education, a lot of people with autism couldn't find a fit. Therefore, they just stayed home,” she said.

Happily, times are changing particularly for such individuals, starting with higher education. As required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), reasonable accommodations are required in all public spaces, including the workplace and on campus. This goes beyond physical amenities such as wheelchair ramps and designated parking areas, to services that help individuals pursue their degree or do their job.

“The goal for physical access is always there, but there are challenges for the ‘invisible disabilities,’” said Katy Washington, director for the Center for Educational Access at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “Whether it’s autism spectrum disorder or a learning disability or psychiatric disorders, those things that you can’t see have impacts in the educational as well as the residential environment,” she said.

The university works proactively to address barriers to learning, such as providing a note taker to help keep up with classroom lectures, teaching in alternative formats, supplying large print versions of textbooks or assistive software or hardware. All of these, by law, are provided at no additional cost to the student or their family.

Even with marketing efforts limited to just the UA website, the department helped 2,800 students in the 2016 calendar year, up from 2,300 the year before. Washington said by the time a child reaches college, most families know to ask about assistive services, but not always.

“We still have to be very mindful that there are pockets of first- generation college students that are out there and on this campus,” she said. “They may not even know what services are available to them in order to help them have access to the classroom environment.”

Access Inc. of Little Rock provides two programs for its older students that target transitioning individuals into the workplace and independent life. Project Search Arkansas Access Initiative helps connect individuals with internships at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital and other local businesses in Little Rock. At the conclusion of the internship, Access helps the individuals find employment and stay connected to the process, providing individual follow-up support for the next five years.

“Especially for our young adults with autism spectrum disorder, we have to find them the right kind of job that meets their needs,” said Jenny Adams, director of the program. “We really have to get to know them to know what’s going to work and not going to work. If it’s a loud environment and they don’t like that, it’s not going to work. Or they may need a lot of consistency—we have to look for that. We need to meet not only what they want to do, but also what’s going to help them thrive,” Adams said.

Access Life is another program targeting independent living. It includes job training but also helps participants work on independent living skills and social skills, such as buying groceries, cooking and health and fitness issues.

“We are kind of cutting edge; our programs are very progressive,” Adams said. “We’re doing some new things that others haven’t done yet, but most programs out there are starting to move to that direction of integration and employment. So, that's exciting.”

Nancy Wells is also encouraged by such resources and programs, and says there is room for more to address later stages in life, particularly as parents of people with disabilities die. Her Fayetteville-based organization, AbleTalks, provides tuition-free, independent continuing education and support for young adults to plot out a career that is fulfilling and sustains them at any stage of life.

“We tell them they’re the experts of their own lives and we treat them as such,” Wells said. “It’s the first time anybody has truly done that across the board. We meet in Fayetteville, but I’m also speaking to people in Bentonville, and we plan on taking it other places. This fits anybody.”

As he himself will tell you, Frank Hellmer isn’t typical but that’s not because of autism. Frank Hellmer isn’t typical, he’ll say, because there is no such thing. “There is no standard profile of autism spectrum disorder; you can have two different people on the spectrum and each can display totally different traits,” he said. “[But] there are many studies out there that show that people with autism can be successful. Sure, employees with autism need more support at times, but the opportunity to work can actually make them happier and more engaged in their work. People with autism, or any other disability, are capable of succeeding if given the chance.”