“Would you be willing to intern a young adult on the spectrum?” That was the question posed by my HR department. Milestones Autism Resources had some clients with an interest in art and as Director of the Federation’s Cleveland Israel Arts Connection, I was asked if I had an appropriate project for a six-month internship.
At the time, I didn’t know much about persons with autism, but I was willing to learn. Besides, I had a project on my wish list that I had never gotten around to. I thought it would be a good experience for me personally, and a mitzvah as well. Then I met Cory Irwin and the internship became so much more.
Cory presenting a piece at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland
As soon as I met Cory, any outdated and uninformed notion I had of a person with autism completely dissolved. Cory is a 24-year-old college graduate who earned a B.A. in museum studies from Walsh University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in humanities from John Carroll–an amazing accomplishment for any individual.
As I explained the project to Cory, cataloguing artworks in the Federation’s permanent collection, it became apparent that Cory had a vast, almost encyclopedic, knowledge of visual art and art history. He was able to interpret artworks in highly sophisticated ways. And research? I have never met anyone as resourceful as Cory. If he couldn’t find information online, he would call libraries. He asked intelligent questions and contacted artists directly for insight into their works.
The final catalog contains detailed essays of over 20 artworks. Each essay explores the background of the artist, artistic influences, and an interpretation of the work. Cory compiled information from numerous sources and authored each of the essays. I quickly ran out of superlatives when describing the quality of his work. Next month, Cory will present his catalog to Federation staff and offer a tour of selected works – works that we pass by every day will now have added meaning. The catalog will also be available to visitors to the Federation’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Building.
But even more than the final catalog, Cory’s presence in the office will have a lasting effect. He was a contributing staff member, attending staff meetings, group outings, and holiday celebrations. Many of my colleagues commented often on his friendliness, outgoing nature, and his passion for his family, faith, and comic books. Cory enjoyed learning from others and was a willing teacher, often sharing his expertise on a variety of topics.
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About fifteen years ago, with a young son in the midst of therapies for then-called “high functioning autism,” a special-education friend of mine invited me to accompany her to a conference. There, I learned about Social Stories™ and various autism topics, and I found numerous resources that I never realized existed. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the barrage of information, I was euphoric and motivated…there were assists to augment my efforts, and there were supportive people who really understood my challenges—because they shared them! Milestones…how aptly named! I returned over and over.
In time, I advanced to the other side of the podium, having co-authored a book with my now-adult son, David. My conference participation has evolved from attendee, to speaker, to committee member, to co-chair. Through motherhood and my tutoring position at a college academic support center for students with learning differences, I have gleaned several perspectives that I seek to pass on. Here is a vital one:
There is one thing about CHANGE that never changes: the need for transition.
Preparing for EVERY novel experience has made all the difference in David’s quality of life and confidence. And beyond competence in cognitive matters and personal skills, the increasing interactions and complexities of the academic and professional worlds require additional planning and transitioning to result in optimal functioning.
When David transitioned from a special needs school to mainstreamed education in the eighth grade, I met with faculty to discuss his strengths, needs, and helpful accommodations. I also tutored Dave in several classes to help him learn in a way that he could comprehend. He weathered social and academic challenges, and consequently became more worldly, skilled, and independent.
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If you told me five years ago that I would be a practicing social worker, I wouldn’t have believed it. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to become a social worker. Rather, I felt that it would be something that I couldn’t do because of my Autism. To be entirely honest, I took to heart some of the negative stereotypes and misconceptions people have about Autism. I felt like I could never support others because my eye contact is fleeting. From a young age, most kids learn that good eye contact is one of the most important skills for social interaction. My interests can also be rather specific, and I really enjoy sharing about them, but sometimes I have a difficult time telling when others want to change the subject. In all my years receiving Autism-related services, I had not once met a clinician with Autism. Since there were no models, I worried that people must not want a social worker who has Autism. It was during my time in undergrad that I met someone who had similar differences who was pursuing a career in social work. With that person’s support, I came to the realization that I would take a chance on my dreams and become a model for others who might wish to follow suit. I earned my undergraduate degree and applied for a master’s level social work program.
My early career assumption was that I would pursue employment in the realm of immigration or refugee services, but my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to interview at one Autism-related agency. That agency was Milestones Autism Resources. “Milestones serves clients with Autism and I have Autism, maybe this could be a good fit,” is what I told myself. I called Beth Thompson and within a week I had an interview. I arrived far too early than what might be considered professionally appropriate, the dress shirt (that my mother encouraged me to tuck in) was untucked because I found it to be too uncomfortable, and my interview consisted of an abundant amount of oversharing. Yet from the moment I walked through the door to the moment I left, I felt welcomed. I knew then that Milestones was where I wanted to complete my first year internship. I celebrated with my family when Milestones offered me a position as their Graduate Social Work Intern.
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As long as Donna Yanowitz can remember, her family was always involved in organizations that worked to better the lives of those in need.
Throughout her adult life, Donna has continued living by these family values, devoting herself to philanthropy and mentoring others in the Cleveland Jewish community.
Upon discovering her personal connection to autism, Donna knew she wanted to become a part of the Milestones mission.
“When I became aware of and familiar with autism, I realized that at least half a dozen members of my family are on the autism spectrum,” Donna said. “Because of the work the founders of Milestones have done and continue to do, I knew it was something in which I would like to become involved.”
In 2016, Donna found a particularly meaningful way to do just that. She began funding the Milestones Internship Program, a program wherein individuals on the spectrum can gain valuable work experience with the Milestones staff.
As an internship that can be completely customized to meet the goals and abilities of each individual, the program has since served as a great social and educational experience for bouncy castle manufacturers multiple high school students in the past few years.
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