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Bill would provide job support for high-functioning individuals with autism

ST. PAUL — While high-functioning individuals with autism can often get the support they need to be successful in school, it can be a different story once they graduate. All too often, they are faced with navigating the job market on their own, and some fall through the cracks.

"They need people in their life to help them stay on track, and if they have that support, they are the Einsteins of the world, the Bill Gates of the world. They have phenomenal potential to become contributors to society," said Susan Powers, co-founder of Social Odyssey, an Olmsted County-based support group for family member and individuals with high functioning of autism.

Powers' group is asking local lawmakers to support a pilot program aimed at providing individuals with Asperger Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders with the jobs skills training and support they need to be successful. At a rally at the Capitol on Monday in honor of World Autism Awareness Day, Rochester Republican Sen. Carla Nelson touted her bill to set up the pilot program. A former special education teacher, Nelson said these students often excel in school thanks to the support in place to help them. The hope is that if there are resources available to help individuals in the workplace, they can continue to succeed. Her bill would allocate $60,000 to provide employment support to these individuals in Olmsted County.

"It’s a small amount of money but here’s the thing: It’s a wonderful opportunity to try this pilot program in an area like Rochester, where we have the Social Odyssey Group," she said.

While individuals with Asperger Syndrome can be intelligent and talented, they can struggle to understand basic social rules. That can make it tough for them to make it past the interview stage, Powers said.


The proposal has bipartisan support. Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, had proposed a statewide program, but the dollars were not available. She is a co-sponsor of the bill in the House. Speaking during Monday’s autism rally, Norton told the audience she became committed to helping families dealing with autism after working with local families and seeing how it changed their lives.

"We need to do something because I watched families struggle to get the proper services for their (children,)" she said.

While the job support bill did clear a Senate committee, it appears to have stalled in the House. Nelson said she and Norton met with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton last week and talked about the bill. The Republican said Dayton seemed interested in the legislation and she will follow up with him.

Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, sponsored the bill in the House and said he tried to get a committee hearing but was unsuccessful. He said he plans to continue pushing the idea.

"There is a great story there about these folks that just need a little assistance in order to stay gainfully employed and off of the other welfare-related rolls. It just makes sense," he said.

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