Workers with autism are good for business

We celebrate National Autism Awareness Month in April by recognizing the growth of services helping children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities achieve their full potential. But it’s also important to acknowledge that an area we must continue to develop and expand on is employment.

In the late 1980s, when we first noticed an increasing number of children diagnosed with autism, the incidence was one in 1,000. Fast-forward to 2019, when one in 59 children is now diagnosed with autism.

That tidal wave of children diagnosed in the 1980s and 1990s have graduated from school and are now seeking employment. In Pennsylvania, we are fortunate that Gov. Tom Wolf established an “Employment First” policy for people with disabilities in 2016, and our state has invested in systems that increase opportunities for competitive, integrated community employment.

PAReports that Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is at 4 percent, a two-decade low, are welcome news for job seekers, and have been very positive for people with disabilities as well.

Last year, the unemployment rate for people with autism and intellectual disabilities dropped to 8 percent, the lowest in a decade. However, as one peels the data further, some disconcerting facts surface. Workers with a disability were more likely to be employed part time, 31 percent vs. 17 percent, when compared to non-disabled peers.

Also, many more people with disabilities are working in the service industries, building grounds and maintenance that are typically seasonal jobs that tend to have lower wages. Surprisingly, a significant number of people with disabilities are self-employed, suggesting that if they cannot secure a job, they often create their own jobs in businesses such as bakeries or car washes.

In the face of these trends, what are we doing to foster employment? First, new programs help students with autism and intellectual disabilities explore employment during high school, and other services help adults build the skills needed to be successful on the job. These include “soft skills,” such as how to use public transportation to get to work, how to dress for the job and how to communicate with your supervisors, co-workers and customers.

Supported Employment helps adults locate and interview for jobs and provides coaches to teach adults the responsibilities of the new position. This service is free of charge for employers, who can be assured that adults they hire will be trained to do the job to their satisfaction.

We can all educate the business community about what people with autism and developmental disabilities are truly capable of. Employers are often unaware of the common strengths shared by many people with autism and developmental disabilities, including intense attention to detail, commitment to quality and consistency, creative and “out of the box” thinking, excelling on repetitive tasks, lower turnover rates, honesty and loyalty.

These are the qualities that one young man, Zack, has put to work at First Amendment Tees Co. in Erie, where he is using his graphic arts background and computer skills. Since his hiring two years ago, Zack has taken on an increasing amount of responsibility to help his employer.

disability_labor_3.jpgAs a community, we need to embrace the belief that people with autism and developmental disabilities bring added value to our jobs. They create diversity in the workplace, which increases workplace morale.

Many national companies, including Amazon, Apple and Home Depot, are recognizing the important role that people with disabilities can play in their workforce. Locally, the Bayfront Convention Center, Grimm Industries, LECOM Wellness & Fitness Center, Mercyhurst University cafeteria, Grapevine Laundry and Bello’s are a few of the businesses to step up and employ people with disabilities. These companies have seen a benefit to their customer market.

Savvy marketers and human resources personnel recognize that capitalizing on the return on investment of employing people with disabilities reflects the $3 trillion global market that is controlled by people with autism and developmental disabilities. In the United States alone, people with autism and developmental disabilities and their families, friends and associates represent a $220 billion market. Additionally, a large number of Americans say that they prefer to patronize businesses that hire people with autism and developmental disabilities.

People with autism and developmental disabilities are a hidden talent pool for business. Just last year, 40 adults with autism and developmental disabilities landed jobs with forward-thinking Erie employers. What would be a realistic goal for us this year? I will leave that up to you!

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Delivering a Balanced Meal: Guest Blog

As we wind down March, National Nutrition month, I asked Kathy Bastow, QA Supervisor,  and Wendy Sadlier, head of the cafeteria, to share their thoughts on how we provide a nutritious breakfast and lunch to 145 students with very diverse food requirements and preferences. Now on to April!

~ Maureen

When you think of school cafeteria meals – what do you see? Depending on your experience, you may see nuggets or slice of pizza – and that’s it. Or do you see students going through the line and choosing dessert and snack for their lunch? Maybe you see students eating the same item day in and day out. Hopefully, many of you envisioned a balanced meal with freshly prepared entrees, hot vegetable, cold salad, fruit, milk.


Healthy, balanced meals are the daily goal of our own Chef Wendy. Chef Wendy puts her 40 years of  experience in the BNI kitchen to work designing a menu which serves freshly prepared, kid-friendly meals.

In preparing these meals, Chef Wendy must consider the many challenges presented when cooking to meet the nutritional, dietary, oral-motor, and sensory needs of children with disabilities. Serving an average of 145 lunches per school day, Chef Wendy will always go the extra steps to help a child be able to enjoy the mid-day school meal including such strategies as:

  • putting the day’s salad in a ‘special bowl’ to help a student on calorie limited diet not feel like missing out
  • Grinding down pizza and adding moisture, then reforming to shape of a slice, to make that teen with dysphagia diet feel like his meals same as friends
  • Adding a tastes of pure maple syrup to oatmeal or cream of wheat to encourage choice of healthier cereal option
  • Adding veggies and fruit to a smoothie to increase intake for even those on altered diet
  • Offering special tasting days with our Wellness Team – such as Go For the Greens – where students are invited to taste or sample something new in effort to expand foods in their diets

ELBS School Cafeteria is a participant in the National School Lunch and Breakfast program.  Based on needs of school community, as a Community Eligibility provider, all students receive free meals. This has increased participation and as result more children have the daily options of nutritious, healthy breakfasts and lunch at school. Knowing that their child will be able to safely eat a balanced, nutritious and delicious meal has led many more parents to choose the school lunch over packing – saving time and money.

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Our *Lucky* Shamrock

Since St. Patrick’s Day is Sunday, we are celebrating early on Thursday and Friday. As you walk the halls of our school, you will see every shade of green that you can imagine. Yes, it is a fun day for both students and staff! Wendy Sadlier, our head “chef” will be offering Reuben sandwiches in the cafeteria, and we will have our annual parade with Julie Moore playing Irish fiddle, leading students as they dance through our halls. However, it’s also a day rooted in a tradition that is the basis for our mission. Why is that? Well, it all started with the shamrock…

We all know that the shamrock is the familiar emblem of Irish culture. Often I have been asked, “Do you have a shamrock for your emblem because the Barber Family is Irish?” While we do come from an Irish heritage, the shamrock truly has a meaning that extends beyond just our lineage. I recall sitting with Dr Barber as she explained her concept of the shamrock to artist Frank Fecko.

BNI Shamrock

The Barber National Institute Shamrock

Each of the three leaves has significance: Faith, inspired Hope, and enduring Love. And the stem? It is our community of supporters, our children and adults, families, staff, and friends. With this in mind, Frank, designed our shamrock, an emblem we have used every day since!

Today, the shamrock endures as our promise to future generations that the BNI will continue our commitment to serving children and adults with disabilities and their families. It’s comforting to think that we will continue to see this “lucky” green symbol for decades to come!

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Why We Dance: Guest Blog by Shari Mastalski

Recently, we said goodbye to our artist in residency, dancer Shari Mastalski. During her final recital, “Room 113 and the Girls Group” performed their interpretative dances of the Four Seasons. It was a fun and inspirational day! I asked Shari if she would be willing to write a guest blog for me, and I’m thrilled she agreed! I hope you enjoy her creativity and vision as much as we did. 

~ Maureen

What is creative dance and why does it matter?  Creative dance offers a playful exploration of three elements: Space, Time, and Energy.  Space includes levels, size, direction, pathways, and shape-making.  Time includes rhythm, beat, tempo, duration, and stillness.  Energy includes contrasting qualities of movement.  These elements become the solvent to infuse class or individual goals and subjects, making learning more available and relevant.  Creative dance creates an environment to learn body and space management, listening, focus, and relationship building.  Perhaps the one learning the most is the teacher who is practicing the lessons along with the students.  What have I learned?  Presence, being the space-shaper, the brilliance of being together, voicing vision, listening, doing something that moves the vision forward, and being momentarily still.


Shari and the group move like snowflakes.

These 20 days have been spent playing with seasons and weather: winter snow, spring rain, summer sun, and autumn wind.  Offering props inspires.  We felt the smoothness of the satin and the crunch of the Cheerios, responding with smooth and sharp dance moves.  Building stories relates. From the students: “If I were snow, I would be the snow in the clouds waiting for the right moment to fall.”  “If I were rain, I would be a puddle for jumping and splashing.”  “If I were the sun, I would brighten the room.”  “If I were the wind, I would blow a sailboat across the lake.”  What would you be?  We have danced with umbrellas and rainbows, snowflakes, sun hoops, water drops, and fans.

Putting this residency together requires a complex process, including gathering six girls from three classrooms and sparing paraprofessionals or teachers to come to the lessons.  Thank you to all who made this creative dance residency possible for these beautiful students.  I am blessed to be in this grand learning environment.  Everyone has graciously invested time and energy to bring this dance to life.  The impact must surely be powerful on unseen, unmeasured levels.  What we do see, is astounding enough.  Students respond with attentiveness, smiles, laughter, movement, sound, bringing great energy, cheerfulness, and enthusiasm in all they do.  We are always looking for each student’s unique talents and abilities.  We are also looking for ways to enhance the ongoing classroom experience with the active arts we have practiced.

Snow is falling gently, softly, smoothly

Snow is whirling wildly

Snow is blowing everywhere

Cold, Brrr!

Snow is still when it stops


The Girls Group with Shari


After achieving her bachelor’s degree in horticulture with minors in dance and theater, at the age of 54, Shari Karn Mastalski went on to complete a master’s degree in sustainable systems.  Shari is a creative dance teaching artist with Erie Arts and Culture and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.  She also leads Bible studies with active arts and informal sustainable systems sessions.  Shari performs with Wing and A Prayer Pittsburgh Players.

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Digital Learning Day ’19!

It may be difficult to believe but Digital Learning Day is just around the corner – this Thursday, February 28th! It seems like yesterday that we were in the gym welcoming our exhibitors, staff, and friends from the community for last year’s event. But DLD is far from just an Erie, PA celebration… it is celebrated around the world!


At ELBS, we use DLD as a way to celebrate our educators, therapists and professionals who create and implement strong instructional practices that use technology and technology tools. I am proud to say that we have many, many staff who exemplify this concept!

I think back to when we purchased our first Apple 11E…could that have been over 30 years ago?  Fortunately we had a handful of staff who wanted to learning everything and anything about the Apple.  Who could have guessed that today we would not only have mastered computers, but be using equipment such as iPads, smartboards, and TAPits, just to name a few!

Why has digital learning been so successful here?  It is quite evident that our faculty has seen the many successes for our students by way of technology. Doors that would have been closed are now open and enable our students to achieve success in communication, academic skills, activities of daily living, and social skills. With – and because of – this knowledge, they have truly embraced learning.

We hope you will find time to stop by the BNI gymnasium from  11am to 1pm to view the exhibits from our therapy departments as well as local colleges and universities. It will be an opportunity for you to view the latest and the best of what technology can offer children and adults with disabilities. See you then!

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Finding Inspiration

As many of you know, I am a big believer in the power of positivity and inspiration. Not only do I enjoy Maria Shriver’s weekly newsletter, I always welcome suggestions of motivational books. So, of course, when I learned that one of our teachers writes a daily inspirational quote on a white board in a school office, I look forward to reading the quote each morning. Today’s quote particularly stood out to me.

They say I have special needs and while that is partly true,

The needs that matter most to me are the same ones that you have, too.

I need to be accepted. I need friends that make me smile.

I need a chance to learn and grow feeling valued all the time.

Sure, I need some extra help and some things I cannot do,

But I hope you’ll see beyond all that. Inside I am just like you.

My first thought was, “That is exactly what sets our school apart from all others.”  We see the child first: The enthusiasm, the desire to learn, the laughter, the unique talents.

While our students may have a special need, to us, that only means that it is our responsibility to learn the very best ways to teach. We believe that all children have the right to grow, learn and reach their fullest potential.  Only by working together, can we can achieve the drams of children and their parents.


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The Dream Gap

Recently, I read an article on the importance of playtime. Much of the article was centered around the startling statistic that, on average, around 6 years of age is when girls stop thinking that they can be and do anything; perhaps even more upsetting, this is when “they become less likely than boys to see themselves as ‘really, really smart.’”

dreamgap.jpgNeedless to say, this line stopped me in my tracks. I re-read it, hoping I was mistaken. I wondered, how can this be? Referred to among researchers as the “Dream Gap,” this phenomenon is evident in developing girls around the world. The article continued on to explore the ways we can encourage girls to continue to dream and to believe that they are capable of anything. One answer? Play.

Often, playtime is one of the only opportunities for a child to explore concepts, roles, and tasks in an unstructured, open-ended way. Whether building, baking, taking care of a baby doll, pretending to be a doctor, or even computer coding, the highest potential of play can create a sense of wonder and curiosity within a child that, ideally, allows them to envision their future as a firefighter, or scientist, or software developer.

I remember when Ryan was about 10 years old, his dream was to be a behavior specialist. Some of you may already know of my deep belief in the power of dreaming. Each of us has dreams: dreams not just for ourselves, but dreams for our loved ones, our children. Of course, they, too, have dreams of their own.

Together, we can close the Dream Gap – we just may have to play for it!


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