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Project Focus helps students with autism work toward the future

Posted: 6:40 AM, Mar 26, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-27 00:03:53-04
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TUCSON, Ariz. — Andrew Don is a student on the University of Arizona campus.

Like many students, Andrew also has an internship. He works in the Steward Observatory Business Office.

Andrew is also a student with autism.

He is part of Project Focus, an innovative two-year transition program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"Our program really is founded on what do other college students do," explained Dr. Stephanie MacFarland head of Project Focus. "The same is upheld for our students with autism and other disabilities. They have those same type of dreams and goals."

Those dreams and goals include learning on a college campus, with the end goal of finding a job they are excited about.

Students with autism continuing their education at the University of Arizona was unheard of 10 years ago.

That is when MacFarland started the program, thanks to a federal grant and a partnership with Tucson Unified School District.

"The hardest part was getting the information out there so that families and teachers knew about this opportunity," said MacFarland. "Because they never envisioned it for their students."

The program is thriving now with 18 students on campus, six with autism.

Besides classroom work, the students main emphasis is working. They have jobs on campus or at businesses across Tucson.

That is where Carrie Hollman comes in. She is the career outreach specialist.

"We look at their interests, what their career goals are, what their experience has been in the past," said Hollman. "We use that to kind of guide the framework that we create to support them."

Hollman says the challenges her students with autism face in this program are really no different that any other college student who works while going through school.

"When you look at anyone who's 18 to 22 starting work, sometimes it's their very first job, sometimes it's the first time that they're in an environment that a teacher or a parent isn't directing everything. It's kind of all of the student-worker issues that are pretty typical on a college campus."

Hollman explained that student mentors play a key role in helping the students integrate into the college community, and on their job site.

They are often side by side with their fellow students helping them to become valuable members of a team at their work.

Mentors have helped Jesus Garavito excell at his job in the library.

Hollman said she sees students like Jesus really grow.

"You really see their spontaneous conversation skills grow immensely. They're having to interact with all different kinds of people all the time. You also see their problem solving skills start to develop."

Steward Observatory's business office has been so pleased with the work being done by Andrew -- they want him to stay on and work after he graduates.

Another success story for Project Focus.