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posted: 12/1/2014 5:45 AM

Bakery serves up success stories for adults with autism

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  • A bakery participant measures ingredients for the cookies.

    A bakery participant measures ingredients for the cookies.
    Photo courtesy of Have Dreams

  • A participant packages up cookies.

    A participant packages up cookies.
    Photo courtesy of Have Dreams

 
Submitted by Have Dreams

Autism organization Have Dreams and ILOVESWEETS Bakery have created a recipe for success with a new workplace training program that helps give young adults with autism a pathway to employment.

Have Dream's pilot program -- Have Dreams Academy -- began this summer in Evanston. The program introduced three young adults to the behind-the-scenes work environment of commercial bakery ILOVESWEETS.

The curriculum is designed around the unique challenges and abilities of young adults on the autism spectrum. Through the program, participants gain on-the-job training in a real employment setting which helps them develop critical workplace skills and a basic understanding of workplace expectations. The goal is to help the participants prepare for and secure competitive employment.

Included among the many delicious delicacies created at ILOVESWEETS are their signature shortbread cookies. The participants were given tasks ranging from packaging the cookies, labeling boxes and measuring the baking ingredients. The shortbread cookies are then packaged and sold under the Autism at Work/ILOVESWEETS label.

As part of this ongoing workplace training program, ILOVESWEETS Bakery owner Jean Kroll trains the students on the workings of a commercial bakery. She also guides them on how to interact in the workplace, and teaches them how to meet workplace expectations, established for all her employees. Kroll found that with training and on-the-job experience, the students were able to successfully integrate into the workplace environment.

Kroll says, "Before long, what became clear to me as a business owner was their strong desire to work, and their ability to develop into valuable members of my employee team."

In addition to bakery-specific skills, the Have Dreams Academy students learn many transferrable job skills that are needed for competitive employment. The program helps them increase their social and communication skills, including their ability to work as part of a team, alongside the bakery's full-time employees. It also helps them with problem solving and coping with challenges in the workplace. In addition, it assists the students in being adaptable to change and unpredictability at work.

The positive results from this pilot program make the case that employing adults with autism can be a good investment for business owners. At the end of the training program, all three students were offered paid positions at the bakery as seasonal staff.

"We are thrilled with the outcome of this pilot program," said Kris Johnsen, executive director of Have Dreams. "This proved what many of us already knew to be true. Investing in young adults with autism through tailored workplace opportunities can be rewarding in more ways than one. Businesses can realize a positive impact on their company's bottom line by engaging this skilled workforce."

To further validate the business benefit of employing young adults with autism, an intern from the Kellogg School of Management was engaged to collect and analyze the Have Dreams Academy students' job performance data at the bakery.

A $125,000 grant from The Coleman Foundation funded the pilot program and the launch of the Have Dreams Academy. The grant also provides for a Community Business Development position to establish a pipeline of competitive employment opportunities for Have Dreams Academy students completing the program.

Cookie lovers and socially conscious consumers can purchase the treats online at http://www.ilovesweets.com/havedreams.htm. All bakery treat purchases provide much-needed workplace opportunities for young adults with autism, and proceeds from the sale of the cookies go to support the program.

•Have Dreams offers a variety of programs for individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder from the age of 16 months through young adulthood from Chicago and 23 surrounding communities. The support services offered at Have Dreams help to alleviate the social isolation often experienced by those touched with autism. Have Dreams has two Chicago area locations. One is at 2020 Dempster St. in Evanston and the other is at 515 Busse Highway, Suite 150, in Park Ridge. For more information, call (847) 905-0702 or visit www.havedreams.org.