Autistic students learning on the job

Sunday News Correspondent
December 15. 2012 8:06PM
Birchtree Center student Connor Ballou, 19, selects items for his lunch at a local grocery store while instructor Adam Magee, left, watches. (COURTESY)
PORTSMOUTH - A broad grin stretches across D.J. Glynn's face as he finishes up work at the Seacoast YMCA. It has not taken the 18-year-old long to complete the tasks of cleaning full-length mirrors, sweeping floors and wiping down tables, but he is satisfied with a job well done and quietly enjoys a cookie as his reward.

Glynn's job is a volunteer position organized through the Birchtree Center's Students Achieving Independence for Life, or SAIL, program.

Glynn, and the other students at Birchtree Center have autism, and learning the skills necessary to gain a job after they finish school can be more difficult than for typical children.

Eleven years ago, Glynn's parents did not see much of a future for him. Glynn's autism is evident in many ways, and it makes communicating and achieving success in a workplace exceptionally challenging.

But today, Glynn's father, Dennis, has a far brighter outlook, not only for D.J.'s future but for the entire family's.

"The one thing the SAIL program has made me believe is, once D.J. does turn 21 and leaves Birchtree, the best years are really going to be ahead of him . which is not something that I would have said a couple of years ago," Dennis Glynn said.

D.J. Glynn has been a student at the nonprofit Birchtree Center since it opened in 2002 with only four students. Today it serves 34 students with severe autism in its year-round Newington school and also provides services within public school settings for students with milder forms of autism spectrum disorder.

The SAIL program is designed for Birchtree Center students between the ages of 14 and 21 and includes intensive, hands-on instruction in academics, independent-living skills and community participation, as well as vocational training. It began just more than a year ago.

Students have memberships at area gyms where they go swimming and work out. They hold volunteer positions at the Seacoast YMCA and the Portsmouth Public Library, and do in-house work for other businesses and organizations, including mail-stuffing and light assembly services.

They also operate a school store, performing tasks such as purchasing supplies at area grocery stores to working the cash register, all the while communicating with student and staff customers.

The tasks may seem simple, but for students with autism, accomplishing them in a dynamic environment can be immensely challenging.

And immensely enriching.

Dennis Glynn never thought his son would be able to work with him in the family business. But over the past couple of years, D.J. has learned to complete tasks that require fine-motor skills and communication with other employees.

A clinical instructor from Birchtree accompanies D.J. on the job site, overseeing his continued development.

"She just kind of watches what he does and sees what he needs for support so he can do the tasks independently and be successful, and makes sure he likes doing them," Dennis Glynn said. "The last thing anybody wants to do at 21 is find a job that they hate."

Communication is key

He said by far the hardest act for D.J. is asking for help.

"The task itself of invoicing or motor assemblies - those are the easy things for D.J. It is the communication thing that is the big, big part," Dennis Glynn said.

He said a key component of SAIL, including the school store and a traveling beverage cart, is putting the students in positions where they have to communicate in meaningful ways.

On Thursday nights, D.J. goes bowling with a friend through the Friends Youth Mentoring Program, which operates separately from Birchtree. In the future, he'll participate in cooking and other activities.

Dennis Glynn said supportive people in the community, from an engaged cashier to a fellow bowler, have helped make D.J.'s social interactions not only endurable but actually enjoyable.

"So many people do get it and do make it extra special for my son and his friend to take something as simple as buying a candy bar and make that a big part of their day," Dennis Glynn said. "It builds on what Birchtree has done."

In a perfect world, Dennis Glynn said, he envisions his son with full and fulfilling days when he graduates from Birchtree in three years, complete with satisfying work, exercise, continuing education and growing friendships.

"There is no reason that we should put a limit on what our kids can do," Dennis Glynn said. "He's a good boy, and we're really proud of him."

For more about Birchtree Center and the SAIL program, go to

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Gretyl Macalaster may be reached at

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