CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) — April is Autism Awareness Month, and doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina are rewriting the narrative for adults with autism.
One local expert said although the number of resources for children with autism has “exploded dramatically” in recent years, it’s a much different landscape for adults.
“Believe it or not, children with autism grow up to be adults with autism,” said Dr. M. Frampton Gwynette Jr., a specialist in adult psychiatry at MUSC. “Once kids become adults, specifically after the age of 21, the number of services available really falls off a cliff.”
After two decades of studying psychiatry at MUSC, Dr. Gwynette decided to change that.
“It really became clear that adult intervention is really needed in the Charleston area,” he said, describing the vast majority of individuals with autism that struggle with underemployment and unemployment.
In 2018, he founded the Autism News NetWORK (ANN), a first-of-its-kind social and vocational program created for adults with autism to practice broadcast journalism.
Members of the program work together to conduct interviews, shoot video, record audio, use editing software, speak on camera and publish informational content about autism, he said.
“What I felt was truly unique about MUSC and our program is that it features adults with autism themselves. They are the stars of the program. They are the story,” he said.
Along the way, ANN received a trademark from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2021, and a year later, Dr. Gwynette was inducted into the National Academy of Inventors.
“This program is the reason I get up to go to work in the morning. Our program has been able to enhance the social world of a couple dozen adults with autism. And it’s been fantastic,” Dr. Gwynette said.
Dr. Gwynette explained the program has also met the need for evidence-based information about autism, with something he calls the “secret sauce”: clinical intervention.
Through observation, researchers have monitored how the program impacts participants’ anxiety levels and mood, learning more about how vocational and social skills programs may benefit other adults with autism going forward.
Robert Russell Mckenna Jr., better known as Russ by his colleagues, is a member of ANN and employee of MUSC himself.
“He’s been an outstanding addition,” Dr. Gwynette said about Mckenna. “He loves to share his experiences and his viewpoint, and I think he’s extremely interesting, too.”
Mckenna, who loves Mellow Yellow, walks up to 20 miles a day and has collected every Beatles album every made, has worked as a supply specialist at MUSC for 24 years, and enjoyed every second.
“Every person in MUSC feels that they have to work, they have to clock in, and they’re happy to clock out and have a day off. I’m the opposite. I’m happy to clock in. I don’t want to clock out. And I get a little upset when I have to have a day off, because I’m having to much fun,” he said.
The high energy job of stocking supplies around the hospital is a perfect fit for Mckenna, who said he felt misunderstood growing up in an era before people knew what autism was.
“They wanted me to fit into society. I’m a square peg in a round circle,” Mckenna said.
Although there have been challenges with the program along the way, Dr. Gwynette said the most important thing in his eyes is to never give up.
“Individuals with autism have had to experience people giving up on them throughout their lives, and that’s not a great feeling,” Dr. Gwynette said. “We want to create an environment where they’re always welcome, and they’re always going to be supported going forward.”