In this screen-printing shop, Gregory Patrick, a 21-year-old diagnosed with autism, took a huge step toward living as an independent adult.
“This is where I received my first paycheck — $31.53,” Patrick says, placing his hands in his pockets and smiling.
Patrick is the first employee at Gateway Ink, a T-shirt printing shop run by Gateway Transition Center, a nonprofit organization created to help adults with autism transition from high school into the adult world.
He does everything at the shop — making screens, spreading ink on them to print shirts and then drying and folding the shirts.
“I want to make money,” he says. “It’s not so hard, but it’s not easy.”
After two years of planning, Gateway opened an office in Central last month.
In the four-room portable building that houses the center, young adults with autism can learn vital life skills that help them live independently, such as budgeting money, cleaning a house and folding laundry. They can also get their first job at Gateway Ink. Soon another program will match them with jobs, provide counseling and help to ensure they thrive.
“The goal for the people going through the program is to get a job doing meaningful work and to be more independent, whatever that means for them,” says Cassie Dinecola, executive director of Gateway.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can make social interaction and communication difficult, and some people diagnosed with the disorder constantly repeat small behaviors like rocking back and forth or tapping their fingers.
About 3.5 million Americans are diagnosed on the spectrum of autism, with the disability affecting many people differently. Some function well in classrooms and workplaces, while others require more assistance in the outside world.
“There is a saying in the autism community that if you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism,” Dinecola said. “Everybody is different.”
According to a report published last year by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, 66 percent of young adults with autism do not earn a paycheck or seek higher education in the two years after finishing high school. Unemployment is a major concern in the autism community.
From elementary school to high school, many people with autism receive education and counseling through schools. But that ends when they graduate.
“It’s been described as falling off a cliff after high school because the services are not there anymore,” Dinecola says.
In 2014, attorney Steve Whitlow founded Gateway. The father of a teenage son with autism, Whitlow had studied programs nationwide that help young adults on the spectrum transition from school to the adult world, and Whitlow knew Baton Rouge needed something.
Two years ago, Whitlow’s family created an advisory board to start Gateway. The board hired Dinecola last summer and located Gateway’s office and classrooms on land at the former Starkey Academy on Joor Road in Central.
The nonprofit receives funding from area charitable foundations, but it also charges $2,500 tuition for its six-week life skills courses. Scholarships are also available.
“My son isn’t participating yet. He’ll need it,” Whitlow says while assisting Patrick at the print shop. “But the community needs it.”
Gateway was exactly what Karen Tiner was hoping for when son Gregory Patrick was finishing his time at Arlington Preparatory Academy last year. She feared he would be stuck sitting at home and enrolled him in Baton Rouge Community College’s graphic arts program so he could find a professional outlet for his artistic skills.
“I’ve never wanted to limit him within safe boundaries,” she says. “I believe he should always be challenged.”
Last fall, Patrick became the first student at Gateway’s day program when Dinecola visited his home to teach him life skills. He still takes life skills courses and works regularly in the print shop in addition to his classes at BRCC and other art lessons. More students joined Gateway’s life skills classes last month.
Sitting at a dining room table at Gateway’s office, Jonathan Griener, 27, and Joshua Cascio, 23, count out play money. Their class this morning focuses on shopping and paying with the correct amount of cash.
They choose items from a table — a picture frame for $4.20 or a clipboard for $5.12. Gregarious and talkative, Griener taps his pencil on his head while figuring on scratch paper.
“You’re trying to give me the least amount of money possible,” Dinecola tells Griener.
At Gateway, their day is filled with classes, exercise and chores that teach them to clean a house.
“It’s great because I don’t get bored all day, and I don’t hear my five dogs barking all day,” Cascio says.
Both men want jobs. They dream of living on their own and sharing an apartment with a roommate.
They see Gateway as the first step toward that goal.
“It’s fun to get out of the house,” Griener says. “You get to do stuff for yourself and be responsible.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on March 13, 2016, to correct last name of Gregory Patrick.