By Christianna McCausland
As a docent at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Justin, 23, would spend all day with some of his favorite objects—the fossils of the museum’s dinosaur collection. He’d also help museum-goers learn about prehistory by encouraging them to explore the reproduction fossils in the cart he’d roll out to the exhibit at the beginning of every shift.
It was a great way for Justin, who has autism, to be a part of society in a way that was meaningful to him and helpful to others. He’s always loved learning about dinosaurs, and at the museum, he got to share what he knows with visitors from all over the world. He was so good at what he did that, in 2017, the museum presented him with an “Above and Beyond” volunteer award.
Justin’s success as a Smithsonian docent was due in great part, his parents, Mary Beth and Michael, say, to his experience as a student at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Montgomery County Campus, a school dedicated to helping kids with special education needs learn and thrive.
I don't think we ever thought Justin would be as independent as he is now. Kennedy Krieger paved the way and opened all the doors. They always believed in him.” – Mary Beth and Michael, Justin's parents
Public school had been difficult for Justin. “His teachers didn’t know how to connect with him, and he was miserable,” Mary Beth says. “But at Kennedy Krieger, everything changed.”
Justin was in the first class at the Institute’s Montgomery County school. Now in its 13th school year, the campus has about 75 students, from prekindergarten through age 21. The school offers individualized programming that allows each student to benefit from academic, life skills and job readiness programs.
"Justin has a sense of humor, can be very engaging and has a lot of abilities,” says Terry Scott, the school’s education director. “We became miniexperts on Justin and built a trusting relationship with his family, and that really benefited him.”
“It was fun,” Justin says of school. “They had special rooms for you to calm down and express your feelings.”
The school’s partnership with the Smithsonian grew almost entirely out of Justin’s personal passion for paleontology. Kennedy Krieger worked with Justin for years on everything he’d need to be able to do to participate in the internship, from riding Metro trains on his own to interacting with the public.
“Justin was a trailblazer and really helped us sell this partnership to the Smithsonian, with his abilities and his exuberance for the subject,” Scott says.
Justin is now enrolled in Project SEARCH, a total workplace immersion program that places participants in three consecutive 12-week internships. He hopes to have a paying job and his own apartment one day. Thanks to his education and internship experiences, it’s very possible he’ll meet those goals.