Breaking Ground 94 - Student with Autism Achieves Success through Social Skills Training

by Karen A. Davis and Lori Williamson, Tennessee Department of Human Services/Tennessee Rehabilitation Center – Smyrna

Stuart Drobina may be a man of few words, but his actions say it all.

“I know he likes his job because he gets ready two hours prior,” said Jeffrey Drobina, Stuart’s father, with a chuckle.

In fact, the 25-year-old, who was diagnosed with autism at three, once showed up to work on a holiday – and it quickly became a day to remember. “They forgot to tell him the place was closed, and he went to work and set the alarm off,” said Jeffrey, sharing one example of how dedicated Stuart is to his job.

Stuart says his is a “busy job” that keeps him moving throughout his shift as a custodian at Dickson Medical Associates. He is employed there through Janarus – The Good Janitors. “I take out the trash and do vacuuming,” said Stuart.

It’s a little more complicated than that, according to Tom Benoit, Operations Manager with Janarus. Benoit, who interviewed and hired Stuart in 2016, said Stuart had to receive special training in handling medical waste as part of his job at the medical facility in Dickson.

“We’ve never had any issues with him,” said Benoit. “He’s always on time, dependable, an excellent worker. He knows his routine. I think people with disabilities who are being trained by the state are a great asset to our company,” continued Benoit. “They know how to do the job and do it correctly.”

Stuart said he doesn’t think he would have been very successful at finding his job had he not first completed the Commercial Cleaning vocational training program at the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center in Smyrna (TRC-Smyrna). He said the things he learned there helped him get and keep the job he has held for nearly two years since graduating from TRC-Smyrna in December 2016. “I’m a fast learner,” Stuart said. “They showed me what to do and how to do it.”

When he first entered TRC-Smyrna, Stuart struggled with limited verbal communication skills. However, he worked to strengthen those, as well as his social skills, by attending the Social Skills Training Group for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) twice weekly. The group is led by Speech-Language Pathologists. It helped Stuart learn to better engage in everyday social situations that most people take for granted.

Jeffrey added that TRC-Smyrna also helped his son on the path to employment by helping him line up the interview and by accompanying him to it.

When asked what he likes best about his job, Stuart said, “The location. The hours. And the coworkers are all right.”

Stuart’s father believes his son is now more independent. “He’s only asked me to take him to work a couple times, and that was during bad weather,” said Jeffrey. “He buys stuff for himself that he wants, within reason, and he buys all the groceries.”

Social skills can be among the biggest challenges for students on the autism spectrum like Stuart, when it comes to seeking and entering into employment. It can be a barrier to employment when the individual feels pressured to change and assimilate into a new workplace culture.

In response to an increase in referrals of individuals with ASD, TRC-Smyrna began offering a variety of individualized support services to students with ASD four years ago. About 27% of the students enrolled at TRC-Smyrna are on the spectrum. An ASD Coordinator now oversees the service offerings for these students to help ensure each gets what he or she needs to best succeed in their journey toward employment. The coordinator assists with tracking trends and adding individualized services and accommodations as recommended by the team of staff and therapists working with the students.

Among the services these students receive are pre-admission case reviews to prepare for their arrival; ASD individual and group sessions; observational assessments; discharge planning; social skills training; social-emotional groups; psychology, speech-language and behavioral supports; and an ASD tracking team. That team is an interdisciplinary group of staff, led by the ASD Coordinator, who meet monthly to discuss any issues students with ASD may be having or accommodations these students may need, and track recommendations with the student and/or staff as needed.

In addition, school-aged youth on the spectrum may receive assistance through the center’s range of Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS). This includes the TRC-Smyrna Workplace Social Skills Training Boot Camp for individuals with ASD, which seeks to address social and other challenges individuals on the spectrum may have in a way that helps these students break down barriers to employment.

Now in its third year, the Boot Camp’s goal is to help the individual maintain his or her uniqueness while learning the communication skills needed to navigate the workplace. The best part is students are empowered to capitalize on their strengths.

The Boot Camp serves youth between the ages of 14 and 22 with a documented disability who are receiving educational services. Each Boot Camp is targeted toward meeting the needs of the individual and the group, with a focus on future goals. While some students are ready to enter the workforce and may benefit from focusing on prepping for interaction with employers, others may first need counseling on post-secondary options.

All can typically benefit from job exploration and advocacy skills geared toward the specific questions and concerns of those on the spectrum.

A major emphasis of the Boot Camp is giving students the opportunity to practice social skills in a safe and accepting environment. Many Boot Camp participants have shared that the camp gave them the chance to ask the questions they have often wondered about, but had never felt comfortable saying out loud. Participants can expect both learning and sharing with others about their interests, as well as practice using social memories to make connections in conversation. Games and interactive activities give participants the chance to openly ask questions to gain an understanding of how many neuro-typical individuals may respond or react.

Additional individual and Boot Camp opportunities may be offered throughout the rest of 2018. Additional training opportunities will be announced soon for summer 2019. For more information, contact Ginger Day, ASD Coordinator, at 615-223-8049 or

TRC-Smyrna is one of only eight state-operated comprehensive rehabilitation facilities in the nation. It is operated by the Tennessee Department of Human Services, Division of Rehabilitation Services. TRC-Smyrna assists individuals with disabilities in achieving their vocational goals through comprehensive vocational evaluations; vocational training programs; vision impairment services, employment readiness services; and traumatic brain injury services.

Author bios: Karen A. Davis is the Supervisor of Vision Impairment Services at TRC-Smyrna. Lori Williamson is the TRC Behavior Coordinator. Janet Morris, TRC Special Programs Administrator, and Ginger Day, TRC ASD Coordinator, also contributed to this article.