Into the "Real" World

Courtney
McGrath
Student with Autism Prepares for His First Permanent Job

Mani El-MahdiNot long ago, no one would have imagined that Mani El-Mahdi would hold a job or complete a project without someone watching his every move. His behavior was just too unpredictable. Diagnosed with autism, Mani displayed the most severe symptoms of the disorder: he kicked, punched, disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Such extreme behavior problems made it impossible for Mani to thrive in school or live comfortably with his family at home. But today, the 20-year-old takes the bus home unattended, minds the house until his mother returns from work, assists the receptionist at his school, volunteers at the Maryland Food Bank, and is looking forward to settling into a permanent job in a vocational center when he leaves school this spring.

Mani has matured a great deal in the last few years and deserves much of the credit for his progress. But that progress would not have been possible without the combination of appropriate medical treatment, behavioral therapy, applied academics and vocational training he's received at the Kennedy Krieger Schools' Life Skills and Education for Students with Autism and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders Program (LEAP).

Mani has been a part of the LEAP program since its inception in 1998. This spring, he'll become one of the first two students to complete the program. But Mani's involvement with Kennedy Krieger predates his enrollment in LEAP. In 1994, Mani was admitted to the Institute's Neurobehavioral Unit (NBU), an inpatient program for children with severe behavioral disorders. "I just couldn't control him," says his mother, Martha Bedminster of Towson. "He was hitting and biting." Like many children with autism, Mani was also an eloper he ran away if not carefully watched.

Mani spent several months in the NBU, where doctors prescribed medications to help him behave appropriately in school and social settings and therapists instituted a "levels" protocol to help Mani learn to control his behaviors on his own. Levels systems reward children who conform to behavioral expectations by granting the children increased independence and allowing them to engage in preferred activities. When a child demonstrates inappropriate behavior, he is "moved" to a lower level and must accept additional restrictions. By the time Mani left the NBU, his aggressive behaviors had decreased dramatically.

Mani enrolled in Kennedy Krieger Middle School shortly after his discharge from the NBU. When the LEAP program launched the following year, Mani was an ideal student. The LEAP program focuses on providing children with severe pervasive developmental disorders with the skills they need to live as independently as possible. Mani is mildly mentally retarded, but can read, write, add and subtract. His teachers at LEAP emphasize "applied academics," helping students like Mani learn to use rote skills in the real world. At school, Mani may read recipes in a food lab, or use a community excursion to practice handing cashiers the correct currency.

LEAP uses the same levels protocol Mani learned on the NBU. But now, says Dawn Ibberson, a LEAP assistant principal who also worked with Mani on the NBU, "he s usually on the top level."

LEAP also makes sure its students experience a variety of vocational options. "Mani helps our receptionist two days a week because he has great clerical skills," says Ibberson. "It gives him a chance to complete tasks without supervision." Mani participated in a work study program at the Maryland League for the Handicapped where he completed a variety of clerical tasks. While he's also worked in the Johns Hopkins cafeteria, Mani says he prefers office jobs and hopes to find one after leaving school.

Ibberson is confident Mani will find a work program that will allow him to continue to develop his skills. His mother agrees. "He's become so independent, and learned how to work well with others now he can find a job and experience so many things," she says.