Reed Mayberry, left, and Jeff Wilson, right, are in a program for autistic children. Working with them are Allen Rawlins, second from left, of Toledo and Scott Biddle of Grand Rapids.
Jeffrey Wilson took an armload of split wood from his teacher and carried it to the other end of the long pile in a clearing at Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse, Ohio, where he placed the wood on top of the stack.
As one of three students in a pilot program that began late last fall at the facility for people with autism, Jeffrey, 16, is learning vocational, academic, and life skills that will help him become more independent as he becomes an adult.
The program is designed to help teenagers with the transition from high school to adult life, said Josh Vollmar, program director at Bittersweet Farms.
Matt Wolfram, the transitional program's team supervisor, said the students in the program learn vocational skills that will be useful as they move into the work world.
"We do everything - from cleaning stalls, hauling wheelbarrows, splitting and stacking wood," Mr. Wolfram said.
As the weather gets warmer, students will learn how to mow grass and weed gardens, he said.
The three teenagers in the program range in age from 14 to 19. Two are from Bowling Green and one is from Toledo Public Schools. They joined in October, December, and January.
Parent Marty Wilson said the people at Bittersweet seem to be able to work with his son Jeffrey's behavior problems, which had been getting in the way of his learning other things.
"They know what to expect and how to deal with it, and they don't mind dealing with it," he said.
The students are working on communication and some academic basics they weren't getting in traditional settings.
"All of them are far more capable than we were told when they came here," Mr. Wolfram said.
Mr. Wilson said Jeffrey, 16, couldn't count when he joined the program in October but has since learned to go passed 100.
The teenagers are learning how to match words to pictures and to read those words. Jeffrey chooses the activity he wants to do next by putting a "yes" or "no" card over photos of the activity.
Mr. Wolfram said a lot of repetition is used to show the students things like the orders of numbers.
"We're going to slow down and really take our time," he said.
Unlike a traditional school setting, the teenagers work one-on-one with a teacher, and there is no downtime. Mr. Wolfram said the students keep moving so they don't get bored.
In the classroom, Reed Mayberry, 14, intently pushed the foam numbers of a puzzle into place and applauded with delight when he finished. Teacher Scott Biddle said Reed had a 30-second attention span when he joined the program last fall, and is learning how to focus for longer periods was one of the first priorities. Now he has the concentration needed to finish puzzles or listen to Mr. Biddle read a Winnie the Pooh book.
The vocational part of the program is designed to teach skills that could get the students work at Bittersweet or a sheltered workshop.
"They definitely could be able to have jobs with a job coach," Mr. Wolfram said.
Bittersweet plans to expand the program to take on more students. Mr. Vollmar said the farm hopes to have as many as 12 students in the fall.
That would require bringing in more staff. As the students move through the program, teachers could work with more than one at a time, Mr. Wolfram said.
"It definitely is something that we hope can be expanded," he said.