Sackville groups work together to brighten future for people with autism

Cooperative, local high school and Mount Allison University awarded grant to develop mentorship program for students with autism.

Open Sky Cooperative bridges gap between education system and adulthood

Harris McSheffery attends programs at Open Sky Cooperative and says the skills he's developed have changed his life. McSheffery is on the autism spectrum, and didn't know what to do with his life after he finished university. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Like many 24 year olds, Harris McSheffery has a university degree, and recently moved out of his parents house. He likes to get together with his friends and play music.

And like a growing number of people, McSheffery is on the autism spectrum, and struggled to fit into the educational system.

"In high school and university, the rationale behind certain social conventions wasn't always explained very well," McSheffery said. 

With a lack of better options, after McSheffery finished a bachelor of music at Mount Allison University he moved back home. But he said it was a struggle for everyone involved.

Seeking options

"At this point I had not really had a clear idea of what to do with my life and my parents were kind of very concerned and they decided to check out Open Sky (Cooperative) because they thought 'what have we got to lose'."

Margaret Tusz-King is the executive director at Open Sky Cooperative. She started the charity seven years ago to help adults on the autism spectrum continue to gain skills after they leave the education system. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)
Open Sky Cooperative is a charity based in Sackville that has residency and drop-in programs for people on the autism spectrum and with mental health issues. Margaret Tusz-King, executive director, started the charity seven years ago to bridge gaps between the supports found in the education system and adulthood.

Tusz-King said the number of people being diagnosed with autism keeps creeping up and it's important to try to meet the need.

"The wave of large numbers is now finishing high school, so they are going to be filling our universities, these are going to be very very bright people  probably very skilled at physics and math and computers but perhaps more challenged in areas of how to navigate social challenges and those of us who have been to university know, it's a social challenge for anybody."

Project funded

Hoping to create a cohesive support system, Tusz-King, with representatives from Tantramar Regional High School and Mount Allison University wrote a grant together to develop a pilot project. Autism Speaks awarded the groups $38,000 to fund the project for two semesters.

Open Sky Cooperative is on the edge of the Tantramar Marsh in Sackville. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)
Tusz-King said university students without autism will be trained to work as mentors for students with autism.

"(It's) to understand what the needs are for their colleagues in classroom situations, in the meal hall, in the residence so they can have the supports they need, the social supports, the coaching, the mentoring, so that they can experience success and learn those things that are not the priority for academic institutions like universities."

Seeing the need

The mentors will also go into the local high school to mentor students there as well.

Joceline Young is a resource teacher at Tantramar and is looking forward to putting the plan into action. In her eight years at the school, she said she's seen a need.

"They would graduate high school and end up sitting at home and not doing much even though they had a lot of ability and strengths."

Joceline Young is the head resource teacher at Tantramar Regional High School in Sackville. She and representatives from Mount Allison University and Open Sky Cooperative applied for a grant to train mentors to help students at the university and high school gain social skills. (Tori Weldon/CBC)
There is really not a solid transition plan for them."

McSheffery knows this to be true first hand. He now attends programming at Open Sky Cooperative in a bright, clean old farmhouse on the edge of the Tantramar Marsh in Sackville. He said the things he's learned have been invaluable.

"The social skills, and growing food skills and life skills of cooking and self management, emotional management to be able to live in an apartment on my own, but also in community."

"And the skills, quite frankly saved me from possibly becoming homeless, quite frankly, because things were getting quite tense," McSheffery said.

Better future

With help from his parents, and using the coping skills learned at Open Sky, McSheffery went on social assistance, lives independently and joined an employment co-op where he hopes to work this summer.

"If I had learned these skills earlier in life, even at university or at high school, or ideally even before elementary school and kindergarten my life would have been quite different I would have had much healthier social relationships."

McSheffery said he can see value in having more people understand autism and it's challenges because regardless of how your brain works,everyone should have some basic skills.

"Being respectful, treating people like they actually have value, because we all do."

About the Author

Tori Weldon


Tori Weldon is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been working for the CBC since 2008.