This guest Q&A is with Dr. Kerri Morse, Ed.D., is the Els for Autism Foundation Adult Services Manager.  Kerri has 14 years of experience developing employment, education, and independent living programs for teens and adults with special needs. Kerri has a Master’s Degree in Special Education from the University of Florida and a Doctorate degree in Special Education from Florida Atlantic University, with a research focus on employment for young adults with disabilities and the utilization of technology to increase job performance and independence within the workplace.

Hi Kerri! How did you first get involved in our autism community?

I’ve worked in the disability community for 16 years. I went to college to obtain a degree in Special Education, and my experience has always been working across disabilities. My mom was a teacher, so teaching felt very natural to me. Upon graduation from college, I was very lucky to be offered a position at my alma matter high school, teaching a variety of subjects to struggling learners. While at that high school I also taught a group of older students who graduated, and they were working on vocational and independent living skills in the community. This lead me to focus my career, and obtain my Doctorate Degree, with a focus on working with adults with autism and other developmental disabilities in community settings, specifically in the areas of employment and independent living.

How did the idea for the Els For Autism Spectrum Award come about? It’s such a great idea to highlight self-advocates who are doing good in the community!

When Els for Autism launched the Golf Challenge 8 years ago and started traveling around the U.S. and Canada for events, we met so many awesome people with ASD and loved meeting them and hearing their stories.  We really wanted to showcase and shine a light on the incredible contributions people with ASD are making and the impact they’re having.  At the Golf Challenge Grand Finale, we were already recognizing our top donors and sponsors, so we thought, what a great venue to recognize an outstanding adult with autism as well?  This is our fourth year and each year we receive more and more nominations and the Spectrum Award presentation has become the highlight of our awards ceremony at the Grand Finale.

How did your team select the voting committee for the award? I saw from your website that nominees had to fill out several questions along with had the option to fill out additional information including resumes and letters of support. Did the voting committee have to review all that information as part of the process? You must have had a great team!

The Spectrum Award nomination form was posted on our website, and we were excited to receive 18 incredible nominations. We loved hearing from employers, family members, and community members who shared examples of the nominee’s activities, contributions, and achievements along with the challenges that they have overcome. We asked over 20 professionals and community members to review the nominations and make a very difficult decision.

Over the years’ celebrities such as Ernie Els, Dan Marino and Holly Robinson Peete among others have decided to started nonprofits to help the autism community. What has it meant to you to see such involvement from these incredible individuals?

Professional athletes and famous actors that become the face of a cause, to not only support their own child, but to make a difference for all individuals with ASD and their families are agents of change for society. They are our everyday heroes. Ernie Els, Dan Marino, Holly Robinson Peete, amongst others have paved the way for ASD to be accepted, embraced and now celebrated around the world. Their talent, humility and fame, allows for autism awareness and acceptance to be broadcasted faster than the speed of light. Without them, this type of exposure and change would otherwise have taken years to occur. By these individuals allowing the world to see each one of them as real people and to have a more intimate look into their lives, trust is built, comfort is established, people begin learning and fear goes away.

Who are some of your favorite nonprofit organizations Els For Autism have been able to collaborate with?

Els for Autism Els for Autism works with numerous autism organizations with the local Palm Beach County community, the state of Florida, national, and international levels through the Foundation’s focus areas of adult services, education, global outreach, recreation, research and therapy services. It would be difficult to say there are favorites due to the diversity of the focus areas.

  • Adult Services: The Foundation works in partnership with organizations focused on employment, independent living, and recreation for adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.
  • Education: The Foundation reaches autism organization through the delivery of local, national, and international conferences, workshops and seminars.
  • Global Outreach: The Foundation offers conference and webinar services to autism organizations outside of the U.S.
  • Research: In 2017, the Foundation completed seven national/international initiatives and made a major public announcement of a research partnership with Mount Sinai New York in April of 2018.
  • Recreation: The Ernie Els #GameON Autism ™ Golf clinics have been expanded to 10 U.S. states and outside of the U.S., in 6 countries.
  • Therapy Services: Els for Autism follows best practices in communicating and collaborating with our client’s outside providers across disciplines to ensure we have all the knowledge we need to best support the individuals we serve.

Any special highlights you’ve had as part of your time with Els For Autism?

Since we started programs in 2016, we’ve accomplished so much! For adults, we have an amazing Work Experience Program in partnership with PGA National Resort, Jupiter Medical Center, and the Town of Jupiter. We also have great on-campus classes such as Cooking/Fitness, Job Club, and a Community Access Training Program. We also offer parent groups and trainings, along with e-learning opportunities and internships. In addition to our amazing programs for adults, I always look forward to our Awe in Autism event, where we showcase the talents of individuals with autism, and the Special Needs Advisory Coalition Housing Summit.

There still seems to be more of an emphasis on autism in childhood versus autism in adulthood when it comes to things such as services. In your role as Adult Services Manager what is one main message you’d like our society to know about our adult population?

It’s hard for people to understand without having direct experiences. Every person with autism is different, just like neurotypicals. When I speak to employers, I encourage them to meet a job candidate and give them opportunities for a working interview, so that they can see what talents a person may have. In addition, getting to know an individual with autism will allow them to learn about their personality, since it’s difficult for some folks with autism to express themselves. Most employers report that their employees with autism are more honest and hardworking than their neurotypical peers and they wonder why they haven’t hired someone with autism sooner.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Thank you for all that you do. Individuals with autism benefit from great role models, like yourself. In addition, it’s sometimes hard for families to understand thoughts or feelings of their children, if they have communication barriers, so it is great that you share your personal story.

Editor’s note: Kerri is a great example of a true role model our community truly needs. I applaud her efforts along with the continued efforts of the Els For Autism team for making a positive impact in our community. – Kerry Magro