D.C. Coffeeshop to Train Students with Autism

Washington D.C. –

As of June 2014, only 16.8% of adult individuals with disabilities were employed. Independent Grounds Coffee House is taking steps to improve those odds, by instilling a vocational training program from teenagers with Autism.

Washington’s Top News’ Rachel Nania describes the goals and initiatives of Executive Director Laura Pickard. Laura has worked as a principal in the special education system in the D.C. area, where she experiences the needs and struggles of high school students and their families.

She explains how, in school, students are immersed in a “really structured and set environment,” but after they graduate, they lose that support.

“There really is a huge need for transitioning students in a systematic way to a less-structured environment with on-the-spot, real-time feedback.”

Pickard says students on the Autism Spectrum ought to receive more help with professional skills, such as how to apply for a position, how to dress appropriately for work, and how to interact with customers.

“All of these things can be worked on in a school setting, but it’s really hard to generalize into a workplace environment in a real-time, fast-paced job.” Students could use extra assistance in the transition from the school environment to the workplace. The statistics aren’t a reflection of individuals’ capabilities, but that lack of support measures in place.

Pickard founded Independent Grounds in 2014, with the intention of creating a space for students where they can practice general skills that can be applied to other work environments as well as gain experience in food and beverage.

“There are really a lot of interesting opportunities in a coffee shop to really expand on a variety of skills that the students might be able to use later on.”

Depending on their individual interests, some students may focus on bookkeeping, while others try their hand at marketing. Pickard sees Independent Grounds as part of school vocational programming, where interns will work a few days during off-peak hours. She hopes that with a couple days a week in the real-world job setting, students will be more prepared to jump into the workforce once they graduate high school.

Pickard plans for Independent Grounds to be a fully functioning coffeeshop, but will focus on designing it to cater to students’ needs. For example, there will be a “cool down area” in case the students get overly excited, and there will be clearly marked visual supports throughout the cafe.

As of this month, Pickard does not have a location scouted or an opening date planned, but she has plans for Independent Grounds to be in the district and has received a lot of support from the local community.

She has started a crowdfunding campaign to receive funding, and is now working on securing grants. “Behind every coffee pot and grinder and espresso machine that’s purchased is a student that will have a more secure future,” she says.

Pickard has researched comparable ideas, such as a bakery in Miami that employs adults with Autism. The need in D.C for something similar is great. By taking steps to improve workplace confidence and comfortability for individuals with Autism, people like Laura Pickard can make a difference for the Autism community and for all of us.

“I have so many parents that reach out to me and write me personal emails, asking to please be put on the waiting list, please give them more information about how their student can get enrolled, so I think that people see a real opportunity here to change their children’s lives.”





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