Autism Acceptance Month – Day #8: The Hiram G Andrews Center, Pennsylvania Disability and Autism Asset

In 2001 while in a Residential Treatment Facility, I learned a lot about the Hiram G Andrews Center in Johnstown Pennsylan-i-a and began exploring the possibility of attendance. It would be a long road ahead of me and many cheerleaders to advocate for the admission process to be done.

That year I was connected with the state agency that operates the school, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Plans were made for a tour that summer. I went and fell in love with the campus, 12 acres – barrier free. Only the state Farm show complex is the only larger Commonwealth facility under roof and barrier free.

Nonetheless I began the process of admission that winter with the plans to attend the school for evaluation the following summer. However, my past inappropriate behavior presented roadblocks from this occuring. With the guidance of several, including my parents – my biggest advocate ever and lots of extra time. I received a phone call in July 2004 that admission for an vocational evaluation was granted and I graciously accepted the offer and attended in October 2004.

During this process, I took a battery of tests, learned public transportation, and sampled career areas. My first preference was architectural drawing. However this was eliminated because I spent a lengthy time processing the material. The last preference was Retail. I didn’t like it because it was too menial. My choice was General Office Clerk, known today as Office Technology. I was granted admission on May 2, 2005 and graduated successful on April 28, 2006

While there I was socially akward to a degree. Having a roommate did help the process some, and a student across the hall in my dorm is on the spectrum. While I did not develop the friendships I longed for, I did run into some cool students that advocated for me including dorm officers. I did lack in areas of hygiene and cleanliness. However I did acquire the skill of expanding my usage of transportation to include Intercity passenger rail to go visit my sister.

Since 2006, services have been enhanced. While there was a cognitive skills enhancement program (CSEP), it has been enhanced by dividing it into three tiers. Access to and from campus has been controlled by a key card system. During my stay there it was discussed about installing security cameras, this has been done. The first semester I attended, smoking was permitted to occur in selected dormitories, including the one that I resided in. However this was stopped and you were free to smoke anywhere outside. This has been changed in recent years by limiting this to shelters strategically placed around campus.

Enhancements specific for individuals with autism include a group specifically for issues related to the needs of individuals on the spectrum. Fundamentals of transportation is more enhanced and is mandatory. Many of the language of the elements of the center has been changed to reflect the current norm. Dormitories are called halls, the health clinic is now called the wellness center, Recreation is now called enrichment and is more involved in the students social time.

In closing, this school is perceived to serve individuals with physical limitations z while it will continue to do so, it should not be overlooked as a place to start that post secondary journey. While I did go on some time later to Community college, which will be to tomorrow’s story, it is definitely a good start. By the way, while I do have a Associates degree, I utilize the skills I acquired at HGA on a consistent basis in my employment.

Autism Acceptance Month – Day#7 :A driving force behind the change

In the 1980s, the number of individuals in Pennsylvania diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has risen by over 2000%, from 2 per 10,000 people to over 40 per 10,000. State and local agencies responsible for providing care to this population, especially the Special Education system and the Mental Health/Mental Retardation system, have struggled to meet their needs, but have lacked appropriate resources, planning, and vision. In response to this growing problem, Estelle B. Richman, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, created the Autism Task Force. This Task Force, which is comprised of over 250 family members of people living with autism, service providers, educators, administrators and researchers, was
charged with developing a plan for a new system for individuals living with autism and their families that would make Pennsylvania a national model of excellence in autism service delivery.

As a rule, there are fewer services available to individuals living with autism as they age. Nowhere is this more apparent than when individuals turn 21. Adults living with autism have no entitlements to any services. Depending on their abilities and needs, adults with autism could benefit tremendously from various levels of vocational, educational, and life skills training, as well as supported housing
arrangements. If proper community supports are put in place, many (if not most) adults living with autism can become productive, tax-paying citizens. Without the proper supports, these same adults often live atbhome, resulting in personal hardship for themselves and their families. When families are unable to assume the financial realities or caretaking responsibilities for their loved ones living with autism, these
individuals are often sentenced to a life in an institution or heavily supported housing. This can cost the state upwards of $100,000 per individual, per year.

Just as autism is a spectrum disorder with a wide range of presentations, families living with autism vary widely, reflecting that persons of all ethnic and socio-economic groups are affected. It follows that families
have differing beliefs, strengths and resources to bring to bear in facing this challenge. The current system
places the burden on families to seek information on autism, learn what services are available, apply for those services, and, once receiving them, coordinate services from different sources. At the same time, it
provides few resources to assist families in doing so. Families who do not have necessary financial.resources, do not have a strong command of English, are not aware of how state and local bureaucracies
function or related responsibilities, do not live in locations where services are readily available, do not have the tools to advocate for their children, or come from groups that are traditionally underrepresented
or discriminated against, face even greater challenges in obtaining appropriate services for their family members with autism.

While we have made improvement over the past decade and a half ago, there is a more prevelant need for more spectrum specific services locally to accommodate needs of individuals on the spectrum. The question is always of what system should it be housed under. A suggestion might be to create a new department and model and make it a inclusive model using new and existing supports to meet the individuals best need. To enhance this delivery, individuals on the spectrum should be employed in some aspect when ethically possible to create a mutual support system as well as utilize the talents of individuals, as many do attend post secondary School, including several at the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation’s Commonwealth Technical Institute at the Hiram G. Andrews Center. (I have wrote an article about my time there years ago. Things have enhanced for individuals on the spectrum and we will include this resource this week.) Individuals attend other education entitles. With several individials having an IEP in school, many utilize Vocational Technical Schools to acquire a trade, of which Perkins grants are used for the assistance of Special Education students within the Vocational Technical Realm. Some do go to the Colleges and Universities. Likewise, some of the big name Universities have autism specific programs.

In closing of today’s post, we know there’s a need, let’s do something about it, not just kick the can down the road, it’s not going away anytime soon.

My stay at the Hiram G. Andrews Center was a Success, there are others, don’t rule out recent incidents

Recently, the Johnstown TV Station aired a story about the recent police activity at the Hiram G. Andrews Center there, It outlined that there were three incidents there in recent weeks including a bout where four students that broke into the old Westmont-Hilltop Elementary school and vandalized the interior, a instance where security was in search of illegal drugs and found a gun and mass quantities of ammunition, and yet another incident where a student had a episode and assaulted a center security guard and center staff member. Nonetheless, in all three incidences, the local police Department of Upper Yoder Township was dispatched to respond.

Being out of the school for almost thirteen years, I can honestly say we too had incidents at the school, One of the major ones that was publicized on TV was where two students went to the Little League field adjoining the center and elementary school next door set ablaze property there. Another incident involving the law was involved members of the community that were in physical altercation in a courtyard. Of course being a facility that housed young adults we had the typical incidents that HGA security handled like possession of alcohol which is prohibited within the confines of the center.

WJAC attempted to actually find out more about HGA and what they offer for students there.. While a prepared statement by the Department of Labor of Industry was dispersed to the  local media, the media questions as to whether students are background checked prior to admission.Today, the center had a post on their Facebook Page about their CNA program and stated that background checks were provided as well as all other necessary processes for employment activity.

When learning about HGA almost 20 years ago, I really wanted to go. At the time I was a teenager in High School was unsure of post-secondary plans. I followed the recommended course of action and became involved with the district Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. I did have some prior and then-current behavior that rose concerns to those at the school. Nonetheless the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years, I toured the school, about one hour and fifteen minutes from my home. I seen a model dorm room, visited the shops and common areas and fell in love with it. This is where I wanted to learn.

However OVR and HGA staff had concerns about my attendance at the center. I had to get letters of recommendation along with exhibit one year without a major incident. I adamantly did the next two years. even becoming a swim team manager at the high school and later becoming discharged from in-home wraparound services. However, OVR and HGA staff kept pushing the cart. To make certain of what program you would like to attend, a two to three week evaluation stay is required. While getting all necessary documentation ready, I received a call in the summer of 2004 stating I would get the opportunity to attend a evaluation in October 2004. I had to get a mengonococal vaccine to attend, which became the hardest part. However, my parents PCP agreed to get it for me, costing $80 to get it. When I received the letter from the Admissions Committee indicated that 1.) you will be closely monitored, 2). Any Incidents will lead up to immediate discharge, and 3.) You will meet with the center psychiatrist.

On a Sunday Morning in October 2004, I made the trip to Johnnstown, PA to start my Evaluation visit. I checked in with the Male Dorm Counselor and was assigned my room, which was in at the time a co-ed dormitory. Don’t worry, we didn’t share the bathrooms as we each shared one with the adjoining room and it was equipped with a shower in it. That afternoon, my roommate arrived, which was surprisingly someone I knew from the high school that I attended while in residential treatment. That evening, we got a small walk-around campus by the recreation department. The next morning we visited the counseling department where the counselor stated that he too had reservations about me attending, but deep inside he felt I would be fine.

The first week would be a battery of tests, with one of those evenings participating in a orientation on how to utilize public transportation, something I will never forget, The fist half of the next week resulted in me performing more tests before being able to tryout some more classes the next week and a half, before being able to come home with opportunity in sight.

The next spring, I met with the local OVR counselor who stated that I would be accepted and could chose the General Office Clerk program. While not my first choice, today I am grateful in this choice as I use skills I learned there every day in my job and volunteer opportunities that make me a true asset to both entities. In April of 2005, I would yet receive yet another letter that with the two of the three considerations being there and the “Any Incidents will lead up to immediate discharge” not being there.

In May 2005, I went back to Johnstown and followed the same procedures and was with another roommate that we got along in so many ways. I used the bus, saw the clinic psychiatrist as needed, attended classes as required only missing when needed to do so. That summer I also learned to uses intercity passenger rail to go to Greensburg on the weekends to see my sister, I did this every other weekend. I did play bingo most weeks, spend time with colleagues, the usual stuff. I never had disciplinary action, however the dorm president did advocate for me once when other residents were bullying me. The Christmas there was a dorm decorating contest that I participated in and our dorm won with a pizza party and a movie. The dorm president was the life of the party. Sadly, he completed a suicide a few years back, I do think of him sometimes.

In April of 2006, graduation neared and I was on the honors list all three terms and was honored a kudos award for showing evaluation students to the program. On graduation day, April 28, 2006 I walked on that stage and proudly moved back home.

For a few months I stayed home with my dad, this was detrimental to my life, and a few months later, I returned to the Clubhouse that I attended prior to attending HGA. While sometimes I found this to be a setback in my mental health and vocational recovery, I today reflect on it and find it was one of the best things that I could do for myself. A month after returning there a new director would be appointed , he’s still there today. I would work some jobs off and on. The next year, I would attend colleague training in South Carolina for two weeks on that model. And yet in 2010,when that same director would explore what would be my job. I had no intention at the time on working as I was very happy relying on social security alone.  However, my supervisor was very adamant on bringing me on board, and  I kindly accepted. This job, which will reach the nine-year milestone on being employed in has not opened so many doors, but has made me a better person. Yet, I use those skills that I learned at HGA in my work daily and will continue to do so.

Does HGA have stigma? yes it does. Can you be successful there? Absolutely! It is all in what you make it. If you dont skip class, perform to the best of your abilities and behave, it can be lauded as on of the best opportunities you can have in your life. One of the things I regret is that I never bonded many friendships while there, however, since then I have blossomed socially since and plan to blossom more. In the end, HGA is what you make it, there are successes as well as failures, but don’t bash these three incidents as what it is all about.