Independence Academy

The Independence Academy of Indiana, a school exclusively serving children on the autism spectrum, features small class sizes so staff can give each student the attention they need. Students Paa-Nii Hesse (left), Kaleb Short (middle) and Aaron Hawkins (right) learn both academic and social skills. (Photo provided)

Johanne Hesse described his son Paa-Nii as joyful and always smiling, but there was a period where Paa-Nii, who has autism, constantly lived in a state of stress. Living in Oklahoma at the time, other students picked on Paa-Nii to the point where Hesse had to visit the principal’s office once a month because of bullying.

When Hesse moved to Indianapolis, he wanted a school that would not only accept Paa-Nii but also prepare him for the future. He eventually found The Independence Academy of Indiana, a school exclusively for children on the autism spectrum. Hesse enrolled his son, and Paa-Nii grew happier and more confident while improving his social skills. In addition, the staff taught Paa-Nii the skills to one day live on his own and gain employment.

“I cannot emphasize how huge the change has been on not just him but on me and other family members,” Hesse said.

April is Autism Awareness Month, and stories such as Paa-Nii’s show the importance of treating those on the spectrum with kindness. In addition, the month is a good time to examine the educational and vocational challenges people with autism face.

Marisa Gill, director of The Independence Academy, said the educational process can be difficult for children with autism. They require more attention than other students, and schools are not always able to provide that attention. Gill also said schools may not properly diagnose students, particularly African American children, with autism because they may assume the child is just misbehaving. 

Gill said because students with autism have difficulty socializing, nearly two-thirds of 6- to 15-year-olds with autism have experienced bullying. She added bullying as well as other stressful factors including lack of support from adults can cause children with autism to withdraw socially or seek approval from peers, which could lead to bad choices. To combat these factors and address difficulty with communication, Independence develops both academic and social skills. 

 “It’s that piece that people with autism really needs the help with,” Gill said. “It’s not a matter of their intelligence. It’s not a matter of their ability. It’s more a matter of how do we help you understand social cues and communicate.”

Independence Academy lives up to its name by helping 100% of its students move on to college or a career, Gill said. Although Independence Academy usually only has 30 to 45 students depending on the year, it’s doing its part to improve the lives of adults with autism, as research from the Autism Society shows more than half of young adults with autism are unemployed and aren’t enrolled in higher education and almost half of 25-year-olds with autism have never had a job.

 The high unemployment rate among individuals on the spectrum is not because they are cognitively unable to pursue a career, but because there’s a lack of resources for adults with autism, said Kelli Higgins, state outreach manager at the Autism Society of Indiana. Because autism awareness often focuses on children, adults with autism often are overlooked. Many of those adults require assistance finding a job.

“There is not just a whole lot of support out there for individuals as adults, not only for career services but also social support,” Higgins said. “… Unfortunately, a lot of these individuals are still home with their parents.”

Hesse, who is a computer programmer, sees a future in coding for his son who has a logically-skilled mind. For example, Hesse can talk about a line of code using numbers one through 10 and Paa-Nii can come up with a possibility Hesse never considered such as using zero. 

To fill the gap, the Autism Society of Indiana began the Career Service Program, an employment resource that connects people on the spectrum age 14 and older with career counselors who can help plan a career path, write a résumé and develop interviewing skills. Advisors are available throughout a person’s career to provide guidance on how to thrive in the workforce. 

Hesse is impressed by the number of organizations supporting people with autism but believes there’s more work to do.  

 “At least when it’s Autism [Awareness] Month, I feel like we should do more and support companies who are doing great things, hiring people on the spectrum and schools like Independence Academy that provide a safe atmosphere for kids on the spectrum to learn and be successful,” Hesse said.


Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.

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