Children With Autism Learn Life Skills at School's Coffee Shop

Filed under: Medical Conditions, In The News, Special Needs

autism skills

Kids with autism learn life and business skills by running their own coffee shop. Credit: Getty Images

Across the country, parents of children with autism regularly battle local school districts to secure the best possible education for their child. But in New Jersey, a proposed state initiative and some innovative approaches to special education look to improve both the quality and quantity of special education these children receive.

At Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Edison, N.J., children with autism or multiple learning disabilities step out of the classroom and into the business world on Friday mornings. Setting up in the home economics room, 12 students in a special education class run a coffee shop, selling coffee, tea, doughnuts, cookies and cupcakes to the school's staff -- even delivering to classrooms on request, the New York Times reports.

Since October, the children have rung up more than $1,000 in sales at the shop, which was developed by teacher Thomas Macchiaverna to help encourage social skills, instill business acumen and impart life lessons.

The students -- all boys between 11 and 13 years old -- take turns doing the various jobs, like cashiering or delivering orders, which helps bolster a range of different skills. But Macchiaverna tells The Times that, above all else, the students get to practice people skills at the shop, where the customers can sometimes be demanding.

"The overall goal here is to make these kids functional members of society," Macchiaverna tells The Times. "It's a different avenue than the standard educational curriculum. It's outside the box, which you have to be with this kind of program."

As diagnoses for autism spectrum disorders have risen in New Jersey, the number of special education students in public schools has increased 3.5 percent to 199,207 since 2008, The Times reports. In Edison, where 80 of the 850 students receive special education services, the coffee shop is an example of the way schools across the state are trying to expand their special education programs to better meet the needs of students with autism and severe learning disabilities.

In Northern Burlington Regional High Schools in Columbus, N.J., special education students run an auto-detailing shop at the school, cleaning cars for parents and school staff. And at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J., autistic students started their own ice cream business and a gardening center where they grow and sell plants and vegetables, The Times reports.

Yet, there are but a handful of successful programs like these in the state. To address this issue, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently proposed the creation of more public schools devoted to children with autism. For school districts, this would help lessen the financial burden of special education, while providing students with a more consistent level of instruction.

Although the coffee shop met with some early challenges in the fall, the students have settled into a comfortable routine and the teachers love it.

"It's not about the coffee or the cookies," school Principal Patricia Cotoia tells The Times. "It's about the interaction and seeing how capable the kids are."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.