Young adults from all over Downriver with moderate to severe autism are continuing their education after high school at the Mixter Institute for Transition.
At Mixter, the students, ages 18-26, learn a wide variety of job skills, from how to fill out a job application, create a resume and act during an interview to working with power tools. It all depends on the individual, of course. Each student affected by autism spectrum disorder has his or her own unique symptoms.
The disorder affects nearly 20,000 Michigan students, and impacts the way individuals function socially and in a work environment. Often, communication, social interaction and behavior skills are problematic.
The Mixter students, most of whom live at home with parents, are learning how to be as independent as possible, said principal Jessica Fessler. That’s the educational goal at the institute at 3301 Electric Ave. in Lincoln Park, and the approach teachers take with each student is individualized based on his or her needs and abilities.
Teacher Jason Reese of Wyandotte started his Mixter construction workshop for students in 2010 with $400 and some borrowed tools, he said.
“It started as a classroom to give the students a safe space to develop fine motor skills and other skills,” Reese said. “We started out introducing them to simple projects like birdhouses.” The workshop now has become a self-funded “micro-enterprise.”
The students in the workshop learn how to safely use power tools, and about blueprints, tool care, and math and English as it applies to basic construction, he said.
And they make a lot more than birdhouses now.
The cornhole sets the students make are the most popular of their projects, which include pallet signs, baseball bats and furniture.
“We’ve had a wait list for nine years now for cornhole boards,” Reese said.
The young adults in the workshop get more out of the construction endeavor than the practical skills they learn, he said.
“One of the things I love about this is that they take great pride in coming here,” Reese said. “I always tell them: This is their workshop, not my workshop. The possibilities are unlimited, and many students enjoy belonging to a class that promotes such confidence and self-worth.”
He asked a Lincoln Park student if he could do a quick paint job on a project.
“I am John Frederick,” the young man said with a grin. “I can do anything.”
In the Mixter sewing and craft workshop, students — under the supervision of paraprofessional Donna Laloue of Lincoln Park — make the bags filled with dried corn to go with the cornhole boards.
“They cut the fabric and sew it by machine and by hand,” Laloue said.
“They make pillows and aprons for our market. And a lot of kids will bring their own clothes in and I’ll show them how to mend things.”
The market at Mixter features many student-made items besides pillows and aprons. The students make soap, jewelry, body scrubs, seed bombs for planting, baked goods and much more. The student-operated market also features a resale shop with a host of items, including clothing and housewares. Donations, which are sorted, repaired when needed, and cleaned by Mixter students, are welcome.
The market is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m Monday through Friday. And on Fridays, the school host a farmers market, featuring the many herbs and vegetables grown in the Mixter garden and horticulture classroom.
Teacher Chandra Bonnau of Canton recently got $10,000 in grants to expand her gardening and horticulture classes at the school. The outdoor garden got its start last spring, and it’s a growing enterprise in more ways than one. Raising vegetables has enhanced student awareness of nutrition and healthy living besides teaching them valuable skills. Plans are afoot to expand the 2.5-acre outdoor garden this year.
The horticulture students, including Southgate residents Scott Baxter and Brenden Cook, work on raised garden beds built by other Mixter students, using grow lights when the weather isn’t conducive to outdoor work. Recently, a group of students, working together, were transplanting herb seedlings.
Teamwork doesn’t always come easily to autistic students. It’s taught and encouraged at Mixter as a necessary job skill. From the ceiling in the horticulture classroom hang dried roses and other flowers. The students use the dried petals in the soaps they make.
“We do a lot in here,” Fessler said proudly. “I have the most creative staff around.” Another new thing at Mixter last year was a formal dance, a masquerade. Photos from the event are posted in a hallway. “It was a ton of fun,” Fessler said. “We’ll definitely do that again.”
The young men and women at Mixter also socialize in clubs based on student interests, including Movie Club, Motown Club, Men’s Club, Women’s Club, Cat and Dog Club, Anime Club, Video Gamers Club, Karaoke Club and Yoga Club. The students participate in Special Olympics, and practice their sports at school.
Mixter this month is holding a poster contest for students to create anpexpression in honor of Autism Awareness Month. A variety of their posters also are posted in a hallway. The contest winners will be determined by a vote of students and staff.
Many people with autism can become easily overwhelmed by sights, sounds and social interactions. For those students, the school has a so-called Blue Room — a comfortable, quiet space to promote calmness.
“We want them to learn to ask for this, to recognize when they need a break,” Fessler said.
In the school cafeteria, supervised students work and serve the food. Everything at Mixter becomes a chance to teach students employment skills. Many of the students already have supervised part-time jobs in local businesses all around Downriver.
“The businesses have been absolutely wonderful to us,” Fessler said.
And some students, also with supervision, deliver Meals on Wheels to elderly people in need. That, too, has been very successful and helps promote interactions with the community, the principal said. “When they go out and leave us, we’re hoping they’ll at least be working at a part-time job, and that they’ll have as much independence as each student can achieve,” Fessler said.