Columbia non-profit teaches technical skills to young adults with autism

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COLUMBIA - As parents of young adults with autism, Becky Llorens and Teri Walden of Columbia provide an outlet for people with autism to learn computer skills in order increase their chances of landing a job through their organization, EnCircle Technologies. In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 17.6 percent of people with a disability were employed.

The non-profit organization was launched in 2013 with the aim to teach young adults in the autism spectrum computer skills to further improve their chances of landing a job. EnCircle Technologies provides computer and web training courses.

Currently, it offers five classes: HTML/CSS 1 & 3, Microsoft Excel/Tableu, Adobe Photoshop, Wordpress and JavaScript. There are 8 students enrolled in the organization. Each class meets once a week at the Missouri United Methodist Church on Ninth Street.

Walden said they provide computer courses because these young adults already spend a lot of time on the computer and have a desire to learn more.

"They are very adept at computer skills," Llorens said. "Frequently they have some special interest that has to do with the computer. They may have very good focus on details sometimes. Often they are extremely creative and they are creating things on the computer and it's a comfortable environment for them."

Because EnCircle's students learn best with hands-on experience, Walden and Llorens work to find companies that will contract work to EnCircle students. Some of the projects assigned to students include building websites for potential clients in the local community Llorens said these projects will improve their skills and hopefully land them a full-time job in the future.

The instructors at EnCircle are not trained special education teachers. Their expertise is in the technological skills they teach. To help them along, Llorens, a physician, and Walden, a secondary education teacher studying autism in graduate school, sit in on every class to help guide the teachers.

According to Walden, the biggest challenge these young adults is communication.

"The social component often prevents them from finding a community that they can join into or interviewing well for a job," Walden said. "Even though, as we know them here at EnCircle they can be very social. But sometimes there might be anxiety, shyness or just some time of barrier that prevents them from understanding body language, eye contact or some other type of communication."

Scott Standifer is the interim director of the Department of Disability Policies & Studies at the University of Missouri. He said young people with autism have the ability to excel at different jobs if they are placed in a good environment.

"What we see when people with autism are matched with an appropriate job is that they do quite well and they have a preference for consistent routine and for concrete rules that actually makes them really good at quality control," Standifer said. "It makes them very good at sustaining a job."

Standifer also said research shows that accommodations in the workplace can be simple and inexpensive - things like writing lists, making clear instructions and speaking concretely. But he said the autism population is very diverse, so diverse options are needed.

At the end of the day Llorens and Walden said they believe Encircle is a great opportunity for these young adults.

"We really feel that we are doing something that's very important," Llorens said. "We are teaching them and training them for job skills that they can actually get jobs with. They are marketable skills and we want to bring in and be open to as many people as possible in the midwest and mid-Missouri area."

At EnCircle Technologies, students pay tuition per class to cover the cost of instructors. Llorens and Walden footed the bill for some of EnCircle's initial equipment, space rental, insurance and legal fees.

Although EnCircle is still a small operation, Walden and Llorens continue reaching out to other parents of young adults with autism through Boone County Family Resource, their Facebook and talking to autism communities in the surrounding counties.