Coy Tomlin adjusts his hat. He pauses. Nestling the ball in his glove, he winds up and hurls it to the catcher.
It's time to play ball at Liberty Christian Academy, where Coy's dad, former major leaguer Randy Tomlin, is the head baseball coach. A beloved member of the team, Coy throws out the first pitch at every Liberty home game. The tall, dark-haired young man is serious about his job and takes the mound with the determination of Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera.
Although he's always been involved in baseball, Coy's parents, Randy and Janet Tomlin, don't know what the future holds for their eldest child, who graduates next month from E.C. Glass High School, in Lynchburg, Va. Unlike most seniors, Coy won't be pursuing the average college or career path. Coy is autistic and struggles in areas of behavior, communication, and socialization others take for granted.
The plight of children on the autism spectrum is starting to get more attention, but young adults like Coy often get overlooked. As more autistic children graduate high school and prepare to make college and career choices, advocates are working to make sure they're equipped to become independent adults.
Garret Westlake has worked with disabled students in higher education for more than 10 years. He currently serves as director of the Disability Resource Center at Arizona State University's Polytechnic Campus. While most colleges or universities offer disability resources, only some address the particular career needs of autism spectrum students, said Westlake, who spoke on his own and not on behalf of ASU.
The Tomlin family knows firsthand how few options are available. While the state of Virginia will pay for Coy to attend community college for two years after graduating high school, his parents are not sure that's the best fit for him.
"We're going to look into the two additional years (at the community college)," Janet Tomlin said. "They teach classroom stuff, balancing the checkbook, riding the bus, etc., but he pretty much does all those things. I'm not sure that would be something to his advantage."
Originally, college Disability Resource Centers dealt primarily with students' physical challenges. Serving autistic students requires a completely different approach.
"Autism hasn't been on a lot of radar screens," Westlake said. "I think we are seeing an awareness of colleges of working with autism spectrum students, but it's still pretty hit or miss college to college." Nevertheless, he still advises students to register with their campus Disability Resource Center because the benefits of doing so outweigh the negatives, particularly as internship and scholarship opportunities for autistic students increase, he said.
Westlake hopes to address the discrepancy between what schools offer and what students need through STEM Force Technology, a company he started in 2011 to provide mentoring, career coaching and aggressive job hunting and placement services for high school, college and adult individuals on the autism spectrum. Although the company is based in Arizona, most of the coaching takes place via Skype, making their services available to anyone with an Internet connection.
"There was a huge need for students to develop their career skills and for families to have someone answer their questions," Westlake said. "As much as I would like universities to change, I knew it wasn't going to happen quickly and I knew it was easier to reach out to families ourselves."
Like a lot of college kids, some students come to him without any workplace or volunteer experience, making it far more difficult to craft their resume and market their career skills. It's easier when students come to him during high school so he can help them find volunteer opportunities that lead to internships, which in turn provide career opportunities.
The Southwest Autism Resource Center (SARCC), in Phoenix, Ariz. also offers volunteer experiences and career skills training to high school students through its vocational training program.
"Participants go to different non-profits-libraries, the Humane Society, the Desert Botanical Gardens-and they complete volunteer opportunities so they have a skills foundation to build upon," said Erin Dunham, SARCC's employment services program coordinator.
Students who need to refine their vocational skills post high school can participate in SARRC's Culinary Works or Garden Works programs, selling coffee, granola and soups or growing and selling garden produce at local farmers' markets. Once the students are ready, SARRC helps them secure employment by teaching them interview skills, helping them write their resume and providing on-the-job coaching until they are ready to proceed independently.
Outback Steak House, CVS Pharmacy, Alliance Beverage, PetSmart, Petco and Walmart all partner with SARRC to hire autism spectrum adults. "We engage with companies and talk about the benefits of hiring our participants and provide Autism awareness training to staff and the Human Resource departments," Dunham said. "We've had a pretty positive response."
SARRC also turns to entrepreneurial efforts to provide jobs for their participants. They plan to open a library coffee house this month to hire autistic adults in full time positions.
"The idea is to have a training component and provide employment to adults with autism," Dunham said. "It's hard enough to get jobs for a regular Joe, so we've had to create entrepreneurial ventures to provide opportunities for autistic individuals."
Small businesses also have partnered successfully with Westlake to provide employment for his autistic clients. STEM Force provides in-house IT and mobile app development jobs to its clients and offers contract jobs doing outsourced IT work for other companies. Those relationships have helped Westlake find full-time career positions for his clients, primarily with start-up companies.
"I believe [autism spectrum] individuals are incredibly talented," Westlake said. "In an age when we're talking about the need for innovation, creating the right support early in the process for people who are brilliant is needed now more than ever."
It is that type of support and societal concern that parents of autism spectrum students long for as they gaze into their children's uncertain futures.
"I'm not concerned about what Coy's capable of," Janet Tomlin said. "My greatest concern is how society views him. I hope society gives him a chance."