Program helps fill gap for teens with autism

- From cleaning toys to emptying recycle bins, 19-year-old Parker Neilson loves his work volunteering at John's Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

"Basically, I want to give back to the community because they're the ones that inspired me to come here," Parker explained.

Now, it's Parker's turn to inspire others.  As volunteer in the A Plus program, he's helped shape the program designed to help other teens like him.

Parker was born with a congenital heart problem requiring surgery before he was a year old.  By age 8, he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and has been receiving his medical care at this hospital his entire life. 

Dr. Flora Howie directs the autism center at the hospital and is one of Parker's doctors.

"Over the years I've worked with Parker, worked with his mom, and by the time he was 16, Mom was feeling the crisis of 'What will Parker do when he becomes an adult?'"

Howie says that's when the A Plus program began.

"We pulled together Autism Center, our rehabilitation department, and the volunteer department, and we sat around a table about three years ago," she explained. 

The program matches teens with ASD, age 16 to 18, with mentors, allowing them to learn both job and coping skills in a protected environment. 

Dr. Howie says they hope the work-readiness program helps fill gaps teens on the autism spectrum experience as they transition into adulthood.

"Comparing a child on the autism spectrum to a child with speech delay or a learning disability or intellectual disability, the numbers are lower for our children on the autism spectrum in terms of what are they going to do when they leave high school."

"I just really thank God for bringing me here, really," offered Parker.

He's grateful for his care and his opportunity to become the first person to enter the A Plus program. He now has a new job at a law firm and will soon be graduating from high school and the A Plus program.  Next fall, he hopes to enter college. 

Although he'll miss his time volunteering, he says he won't lose contact with his hospital family.

"It's been really fun here and I hope to get to come back but just to visit, you know.  It’s one of the best places on earth." 

He hopes the community will join him in helping others achieve the same success. 

"When it comes to people with mental physical disabilities, we need to help them to achieve what kind of dreams they want,” he added.  “And when it comes to autism, we always have one goal and that is to thrive.  We need to thrive.”

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