As the sibling of a woman with autism and the mother of a son with autism, Devan Southerland has experienced firsthand the gaps in support for individuals with autism and their families. While there are organizations that provide career assessment, counseling, job training, and job placement in Baltimore City, individuals with autism can be ineligible for them. She knew that something had to change and believed she could be the one to do it.
“One of my very first jobs was working for a place called the Julie Community Center,” Southerland shared. “The supervisor at the time was Sister Barbara English. I was so enamored by how she ran the Julie Community Center, and I thought to myself, ‘You’re doing so many awesome things outside of this space. Like, you’re doing a lot for kids, for adults, for the neighborhood. This is really the work that you’re doing.’ And I thought to myself, I want to do that kind of work for Baltimore.”
As an OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow, Southerland is starting the program Brown on the Spectrum (BOTS) to provide the supports she didn’t see adequately presented to families in her neighborhood of McElderry Park. BOTS is as a community focused, person-centered, vocational, and employment resource for individuals with autism and other intellectual disabilities in Baltimore City.
Baltimore City Public School System’s enrollment data for the 2021-2022 school year indicated that nearly 14% of the 77,807 students enrolled were classified as students with disabilities. Students with disabilities who are deemed certificate tracked (not on a path toward a diploma) early on in their academic career can face challenges when seeking employment or furthering education, as the certificate is different from a high school or GED diploma, thus creating another obstacle. Southerland plans to remove these barriers to eligibility by operating BOTS as a community-based, local employment agency and resource for those with autism and aiming to employ those who may be otherwise “unemployable” without the assistance of additional services to help them with optimal job performance.
Southerland hopes to start conversations early with parents alongside the school-created Individualized Education Program team to bring services that will empower their children to meet their learning goals, graduate at 18, and then be able to contribute positively to Baltimore City’s workforce.
“It can be a daunting experience navigating autism services and programming without prior knowledge, resources, and a network of support around to guide you,” Southerland said. “I believe earlier intervention in a person with autism’s life can lead to more opportunities for individual independence and personal, intentional career decision-making toward adulthood.”