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There is "Hope" for ASD Students to Join the Workforce

HUDSON – According to the most recent study from the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 36 children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with autism, and around 76 million people currently have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Experts say there are three functional levels of autism, requiring varying degrees of support. Individuals with ASD 1 are usually able to speak full sentences and communicate, but they have limited social skills, and trouble with planning and organization. People with ASD 2 have problems verbalizing, and socializing is much more difficult. They may also engage in more repetitive behavior, like pacing back and forth. ASD 3 requires the most support, due to their inability to speak clearly, if at all, and very limited social skills.

There are more people diagnosed with autism in Florida than any other state, so for parents with children on the spectrum, searching for a school that meets all their needs can be a challenge. That's why Rev. Jose Suarez and his wife Ampy Suarez decided to dedicate their lives to helping children of all ages succeed, by establishing the Hope Ranch Learning Academy.

Hope Ranch is a Christian faith-based K-12 academy that uses a proven teaching method to help children achieve curriculum goals and master social skills.

Hope Ranch is nestled on several sprawling acres in northwest Pasco County, where students interact with horses and other animals as part of their animal assisted therapy. ATT helps promote better social skills, stimulate emotions, and reduce the propensity for aggression in ASD children. Studies show that children who engaged in ATT activities were happier and more aware of their environment. One study showed that ASD children involved in equestrian therapy improved significantly in the use language and social understanding.

R News recently attended a session at the academy's Hope for Tomorrow Summer Career Camp, where students were introduced to representatives from various professions. The Suarezes say unemployment rates among adults with disabilities can be as high as 85% and they are on a mission to lower that percentage and help graduates find their place in the work force.

The Suarezes explain that people with ASD can be huge assets to companies because they easily adapt to mundane tasks that require repetitive actions. Ampy explains that hiring employees with ASD is not just a "social good," it can actually increase productivity and profitability. One company saved millions of dollars because their ASD employee is able to catch errors in promotional flyers. Jose says another ASD employee was hired by NASA because he patented a formula to accurately detect the age of stars. Ampy says, "We have kids that are very bright, it's just that social piece, you know, they may not be comfortable in large settings, but we push our students, so that they do become comfortable."

During the Hope for Tomorrow Summer Camp, students participate in mock interviews every Friday, so they become comfortable with the process before they are sent out into the real world. Students also learn how to write resumes, understand body language and active listening, dress for success, and prepare for post-secondary education.

While we were there, students were treated to a visit by State Representative Jeff Holcomb, who promised to help ensure schools like Hope Ranch would always have what they need to grow.

Paramedics with MedFleet spent a lot of time answering questions and even gave the students a close-up tour of an ambulance - blaring sirens, lights and all.

Spring Hill Attorney Brian Brijbag of the Brijbag Law Firm gave students one of the more interesting presentations about what it takes to become an attorney. Brijbag explained that an attorney in Florida must have a college degree, attend law school, and pass the bar exam. Brijbag emphasized how grueling the two-day long bar exam was, but says it's well worth it in the end.

Brijbag is a long-time supporter of Hope Ranch, in part, because his own daughter is an ASD student at the academy. "The school has made a big impact on my family's life because of the impact it's had on my daughter. They've helped my daughter overcome many challenges and we are eternally grateful for everything they've done," says Brijbag.

The Suarezes say they've purchased additional land and will continue to expand academy to help as many children as they can. At any given time, Hope Ranch has about 200 applicants on a waiting list because of the success they've had with ASD students.

Hope Ranch Learning Academy recently received the Yass Prize, which is a prestigious award given to the education provider whose innovative product or program is judged to give students the most effective, transformational, and lasting educational experience possible-with a clear, barrier-tree path to success (According to a Hope Ranch press release). As a top finalist, Hope Ranch will receive an award of at least $200,000.


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