Like a lot of 22-year-old suburban people finishing their formal educations, Ben Nicholas of Mount Prospect flashes an easy smile. In it, you see both satisfaction for what he has accomplished and anticipation for the adult path opening before him.
School is finished, his part-time job is done, and Ben, a special-education student who falls somewhere on the high-achieving end of the autism spectrum, starts a full-time job Monday in a manufacturing career with endless possibilities.
"And I've made a lot of friends," he adds.
He acknowledges that none of these things would have been possible without his past three years at Miner School, an Arlington Heights therapeutic day school that is part of the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization (NSSEO) serving school districts in Wheeling, Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Palatine, Prospect Heights and elsewhere.
"I want to thank all the teachers here at Miner for helping me get through all this," Ben says during his "aging out" ceremony at the school the day before his 22nd birthday, when he becomes too old to receive educational services from the state. "Miner helped me get through a lot of walls I was running into."
He also thanks his parents, Craig Nicholas and Joanne Prifti-Nicholas, for their never-wavering support and advocacy.
Just as some parents react to a bright toddler with dreams of a "gifted" life and college scholarships, parents of children with developmental issues may envision a lifetime of frustration and institutions. The Nicholases had such moments.
As a 3-year-old, Ben had a 15-word vocabulary, never slept through the night, was susceptible to seizures and lagged far behind his peers academically and socially. He climbed out a window before he could walk. Allergies and reactions to certain foods would set off angry tantrums. He needed services provided by NSSEO.
"Regular school gives you some stuff, but what you need to get you flying, NSSEO does a really great job," says his mom, who grew up across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., and has been active in civil rights and other causes all her life. Miner School was "the promised land," says Ben's dad. "They gave us hope."
The parents, whose older son, Adam, is a chemist, give NSSEO's Connection Center Transition program credit for turning that hope into a better opportunity for Ben.
"We had to craft these experiences for Ben," Miner Principal Jack O'Neal says of programs that gave Ben opportunities to shadow workers, take classes at Harper College and work some part-time jobs at local businesses. "Partnering with community employers allows transition programs to help students discover their interests and develop their strengths."
That partnership also has been a boon for businesses such as eWorks (an electronics recycling business in Elk Grove Village), Walgreens, Orangetheory Fitness, Molon Motor & Coil Corp. in Arlington Heights, Busse Car Wash in Mount Prospect, Gus' Diner in Rolling Meadows, Fresh Thyme grocery stores and other local businesses.
"Ben's just got such an outgoing attitude. He's honest and straightforward, a happy person, and that's the kind of people we want here," says Jon Little, the store director at Fresh Thyme Farmers Market in Mount Prospect, where Ben just finished a yearlong job stocking shelves, collecting carts, bagging groceries, helping customers and doing whatever tasks came his way. "He wants to make sure his work is up to our standards and his standards."
Tomorrow, Ben starts a new job at a suburban manufacturing plant, where he'll work from 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. five days a week for a starting salary of $10 an hour.
"I'm really proud of Ben. He's come a long way," says Joanna Mammas, the NSSEO job coach who helped Ben thrive at Fresh Thyme.
"I'm his biggest fan," says Peggy Doyle, a manager at Fresh Thyme. "My mother taught special education for 35 years. It's patience and understanding, but we have a lot of fun."
And some funny moments.
"A customer asked where something was, and it was right in front of them. I pointed to the shelf, and they did one of those face-palm things," says Ben, who memorized the location of every product. He also proved resourceful when faced with a problem. A hook used to snag bottles at the back of the spice rack "didn't work well enough, so I made my own," Ben says.
Even as a young boy who struggled with reading and other subjects, Ben showed flashes of mechanical ability. Given a complicated toy construction set as a 7-year-old, he grew frustrated with the 30-page instruction book and asked his dad for help.
"Why don't you just try?" Craig Nicholas responded.
The boy designed such a fantastic creation, his dad contacted the company, Rokenbok Education, which was impressed enough to ask if Ben could serve as a consultant and give them his opinion of prototypes sent to him.
"My dad warned them that I wouldn't give it back," says a grinning Ben, noting that he still has a first-of-its-kind Rokenbok forklift in a basement filled with an intricate electric model railroad system and antique railroad memorabilia, much of which Ben has restored and returned to working order.
He explains the work that went into the functioning railroad-crossing signal in his backyard, and the fully restored 75-pound, 100-year-old teardrop bell from the Donner Pass on the Southern Pacific Railroad. A volunteer at the Illinois Railway Museum at Willow Creek Church, where he has shot videos, Ben earned several certificates from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills through classes at Harper.
Not every student with NSSEO is capable of that kind of success. One study says 35 percent of adults with autism between the ages of 19 and 23 receive no schooling after high school, and another shows that adults with autism are far more likely to be unemployed, work for lower wages or be unable to find full-time work. Ben admits that his parents, teachers and counselors had to push him to try new things and take on challenges.
"I don't like things coming up unexpectedly," he says, noting that he has learned "problem-solving and brainstorming" skills to help him handle change. "Now I'm confident about meeting other people."
Every person is different, but helping all of them reach their potential is the goal, O'Neal says.
"There are rungs on the ladder," Prifti-Nicholas says.
Ben Nicholas is on the way up.