Like everyone else, the team at Project SEARCH Autism Enhancement (PSAE) had to respond rapidly to the forced shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis – and they did, achieving a smooth transfer to remote learning for each intern and resuming the program’s regular schedule, five days a week. While there will be further adjustments to life online for everyone at PSAE, we couldn’t be prouder of how they’ve adjusted under stress. Here’s their story. 


Days before schools, businesses and social service programs were shuttered in New York State, the PSAE staff received notice that it, too, had to close on March 16th.   That same day, Nancy Fraher, the Program Coordinator from the Arc Westchester which runs the program created by NEXT for AUTISM, alerted parents and interns by email and phone, and immediately went to work planning the transfer of teaching resources online.

Nancy and her team’s first instinct was to minimize interruption to the interns’ training schedules.  They organized themselves and helped the young adults manage the high level of anxiety and uncertainty, while also answering many of the parents’ concerns. Within just days of the closing, the interns were set up remotely and had their first online meeting.

Here are examples of the PSAE team’s dedication during the transition.  NEXT for AUTISM provided technical assistance.

Created Work-at-Home Plans
Before the shutdown, interns followed a strict schedule from 8:15 AM to 2:30PM. They held group meeting, workshops on such topics as resume writing and time management, then individual lessons to develop life skills before heading out to their internship jobs. At home, the team has structured a shorter schedule that continues the learning and routine, with individualized lessons based on each intern’s progress in the curriculum. For example:

Established Online Capabilities
With computers or tablets at home, the interns have had the ability to work on shared documents, research information, and do job tasks. Before the shutdown, interns received instructions and pointers from their instructors as they worked in the training room. With lessons on a shared drive, the interns can still receive real-time guidance from instructors, now on the shared document.

Trained on Google Suite of Applications
Sustaining face-to-face interaction with instructors and their friends in the program was a priority. Alison Bush, Sr. Manager of Program Development at NEXT for AUTISM, spent time walking the PSAE team through the setup and operation of video and chat apps, so they could teach it to the interns. They used screen shots and spoke to families by phone until everyone felt fluent enough.  Frustrations were conquered, and by Friday of last week, interns were able to chat with one another and their instructors, and for the first time, they met by video chat to share their weekend plans – a typical Friday meeting that they had had before.

Going Forward
As of this writing, PSAE interns and their instructors were on their way to week two of working at home. They met with their instructors at the start of the week to ask questions about telecommuting, plan communications to their job supervisors, and further refine their work-from-home schedules.  While we are only at the beginning of this period of uncertainty, and there will likely to be more bumps in the road ahead, all told, this was a successful pivot to the new normal.

Project SEARCH Autism Enhancement was created in partnership with Project SEARCH and the TEACCH Autism Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It is available for adoption by interested organizations.  This program is run by The ARC Westchester.