Katie Noll was ready at the cash register when one of the first customers of the day stepped up.
“Is that everything?” Noll, 19, asked.
“Oh, wait, hold on,” said the customer, a fellow West Chester University student, as she whirled around to grab gum.
“Your total will be $7.96,” Noll said.
The transaction was a simple one, but for a student such as Noll, who has autism, the experience of working in a newly opened convenience store, dealing with strangers, managing multiple tasks, and understanding basic social cues can be challenging but also key to preparing for the career world.
West Chester last week became the first university in the country to open a convenience store on campus to provide workplace training for autistic students, according to a Yale University expert whose organization is familiar with college programs nationally.
The Ram Shop, located in the same building as West Chester’s autism program, will be a training ground for up to a quarter of the 50 students in the autism program on the 17,840-student state university’s campus, said Cherie Fishbaugh, director of autism services.
West Chester president Christopher Fiorentino plans to job-shadow the student workers later in September.
“Whatever the issues that the students are facing," Fiorentino said, "once we bring them into the institution, we consider it our responsibility to do everything in our power to get them across the finish line.”
That means making sure they are employable, he said.
West Chester began its autism program three years ago, on the cusp of a movement among colleges nationally to better serve growing numbers of students with autism showing up in classrooms. Between 1.7% and 1.9% of the nation’s college students are estimated to have autism.
Only a few students have dropped out of the program, which provides support in areas such as social competence, independence, self-care and career readiness and troubleshoots problems that students face in the classroom.
Academically, the students perform at the same level as their peers and have to go through the same admission requirements, Fishbaugh said. But they need extra support to learn how to navigate the classroom environment and social situations, which can be difficult for students with autism.
“A lot of my students have a lot of anxiety," Fishbaugh explained. “How that may manifest may be quickness in speech, the volume being up in their voice. It may be that they have different fidgets to keep their hands busy so they can talk."
There are more than 60 programs at colleges nationwide. With 11, Pennsylvania has more than any other state. Among them are programs at Drexel, St. Joseph’s, Bucks County Community College, Kutztown, and Eastern. Rutgers also has a program.
More programs are realizing the importance of career readiness, said Jane Thierfeld-Brown, an assistant clinical professor at Yale Child Study Center and director of College Autism Spectrum.
Nationally, 82 percent of college graduates with autism remain unemployed, she said. Yet, said Fishbaugh, many have characteristics that make them excellent employees, including attention to detail and high productivity.
“People rarely think about teaching work skills to college-capable students,” Thierfeld-Brown said. “Many people on the autism spectrum need to learn those employment skills as much as they need to earn a college degree — or more.”
The Ram Shop looks a lot like other grab-and-go stores; it offers an array of snacks and drinks and West Chester T-shirts, mugs, and decorative footballs. But it’s distinctive, too. Prominently displayed behind the counter is a bright yellow T-shirt, with “The Autistic Voice” on the front and statements from students with autism on the back: “It doesn’t define me, though it’s a part of me," “I’m proud to be autistic,” and “You are someone’s world.” Designed by students in the program, it’s selling for $12.99, with some proceeds going toward the social fund for the program.
On the back wall is a mural, painted by art students, that includes the phrase “Inclusion Is Within Everyone’s Ability.”
The store employs five students, all paid, two of them in the autism program, Fishbaugh said. Others from the program will rotate in as volunteers and when they learn “preemployment” skills will be eligible for a paying job.
Store manager Billl Marinelli is there to support students. If working the cash register becomes too stressful, students can take a break and stock shelves or hang fliers, he said. He emphasizes that they should ask for help when they need it.
That’s what Noll did Thursday when a student’s payment card wouldn’t work.
“I’ll be right back. I’m going to grab a manager,” Noll told the customer.
Marinelli told her she handled the situation right.
“The most important thing is that you told me you’re having trouble with it," he said.
For Noll, who is from Susquehanna, the convenience-store job is her first retail experience.
“It’s more or less forcing me to learn how to juggle multiple things and balance everything in my life, which is something I desperately need to learn and I have been learning,” said Noll, who fingered a spiraled bendie stick as she talked, a strategy the autism program gave her to avoid picking at her nails.
A history major, Noll was diagnosed with autism in high school, said her mother, Christie Esworthy. She also has a learning disability and ADHD. She’s an avid reader, winning an award in middle school for checking out the most books from the library, 600 of them, over three years. At West Chester, she’s maintained a GPA of nearly 3.2 and hopes to work in a museum,
Esworthy, a school counselor, is high on West Chester’s program.
“I just really feel they understand her needs,” she said.
The program also has been transformative for Tyler Haney, the other student worker at the shop. A senior from Perkasie, Haney, 22, was diagnosed with Asperger’s in first grade. He also was identified as gifted. His first attempt at college didn’t work out. He left Messiah College because he didn’t believe that he got the support he needed. His parents even hired peers to help with time management and social skills, but it wasn’t enough.
Then Haney learned about West Chester’s autism program.
“They set goals for him and expectations," said his mother, Marie Haney, who works with students who have disabilities. "We saw a huge difference when he came home. He seemed so much more confident in his own abilities. He really seemed happy.”
He said he liked that the program established social meet-ups and one-on-one help sessions with graduate assistants. Working in the store is another opportunity to hone his job skills, he said. Also a history major, Haney, who has a 3.67 GPA, hopes to work in a museum, too.
The store also employs three students without autism, including Madeline Berger, 19, a sophomore from Harleysville. She describes her role as a “binder” between disability and the general student population.
“I see myself being the glue and building that bridge,” said Berger, a communicative science and disorders major.
Lauren Murphy, Noll’s customer who grabbed the gum, didn’t know the store employed student workers with autism. A sophomore from Abington, she lives up the street and found the location convenient for a quick snack.
She was heartened to learn the store’s purpose.
“It’s important for us to incorporate kids who have disabilities into every day normal life," Murphy, 19, said. "We can learn a lot from them, too.”