Parkland student with autism works at local art studio
A 19-year-old Parkland High School student was given a unique opportunity with help from school staff and state and local agencies to work in an art studio.
Ajai Lanathan, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, attends the Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21 Lifehouse program, the IU workshop, and the breakfast and crafts program.
He also wipes tables at Applebee’s and now he can add Art Fusion in Whitehall to his work-based learning jobs.
Lata and Chittur Ananthan, Ajai’s parents recently spoke with The Press about their son’s art studio work and the different agencies that helped the family.
“Since 12th grade his anxiety increased. We saw things to where he couldn’t go to his work-based businesses, so that is when we contacted an advocate at the Arc of Lehigh and Northampton counties,” Lata Anathan stated. “Suzanne Mulhern told us about the discovery process and that is when we met Kathleen Slane with the Arc of Pennsylvania.
“We were at a stand still with IU 21 not getting work placement for him, so we were hoping Arc would advocate for him.”
Lata Ananthan said after Ajai read his vision statement, answers from a questionnaire turned into a “What My Life Would Look Like” story at one of his Individual Education Plan meetings.
A plan was put into place so he would be successful not only at Art Fusion but all his work-based learning job sites.
The staff from Parkland and IU 21 collaborated with Arc to have this placement at Art Fusion happen for Ajar, Lata Anathan said.
“Our journey through Parkland has been wonderful and very supportive and helpful,” Chittur Anathan said. “Gary Stephens, his one-on-one support person has been a big factor in helping Ajai be successful at his work-based learning sites and school.”
The Ananthans credit Andrew Weber, director of special education at Parkland, and Ajai’s teacher Jennifer Evans, with being supportive.
Lata Anathan said this summer Ajai will be doing a work-based learning experience at Touchstone Theater in Bethlehem.
“He will work there four hours a week in the music office,” she said. “Once they do a play in the evening, he will be handing out the programs and seating patrons.”
He will also be doing an extended school year at Parkland in July to August, Lata Ananthan added.
Ajai’s parents also discussed their son’s artistic talents and their future hopes for him.
“When Ajai was 17, I introduced him to art to help him rechannel his anxiety and calm him down,” Lata Ananthan said. “He has always been interested in music since he was about 8 or 9 years old. Music continues to be soothing for him.”
Chittur Ananthan said his son has a very sharp eye for art and has very good hearing.
Lata Anathan noted that social interaction is very therapeutic for Ajai.
“Our long-term wish is that Ajai find some sort of part-time employment,” she said. “We are hoping some business in the Valley will take him under its wing and offer him employment.”
“We are hoping for him to be a productive member of society. I want Ajai to have a good life. He has a lot to offer to this world.”
Diane Miller with Art Fusion discussed Ajai’s work at her studio.
Miller said she offered to have Ajai work at her studio to help the teen and to help Slane advance her program.
“This is my first time I have had a one-on-one experience with an individual who has autism,” Miller said. “I think the end result is for kids to be in an environment they enjoy, and work in is important.
“I didn’t know what my boundaries were going to be with him. This was something I had to learn, such as redirecting and refocusing him while doing a task.
“I have learned a lot from the group (Parkland and Arc staff) and Ajai.
“I have not always been the most patient person, but to watch Ajai respond and to have a comfort zone with me was heart warming.”
Miller said Ajai is very social and warm.
“So why wouldn’t you put yourself out there,” she said.
Miller said she would do this again with another student.
Slane and Mulhern discussed their agency’s process with an individual or family.
Arc of Lehigh and Northampton counties and Pennsylvania deal with young adults and adults in transition who have any kind of disabilities, Slane said.
She spent four months with Ajai during the discovery process.
“The whole process is to get to know an individual,” Slane stated. “Through the discovery process, I learned Ajai was artistic, loved art and played the piano.
“After going through this process and learning all I could about Ajai as an individual, I wrote a three-part profile with recommendations.
“For the first time in this area, Parkland High School and the IU agreed, and their thinking outside the box paid off at having Ajai work at Art Fusion.”
Slane said that typically a young person in high school will go through a work-based learning program that is through the IU.
“And, it serves the basic needs of individuals to learn things like stocking, bagging, cleaning, getting carts etc. But what happens if the individual is not interested in these vocations? They basically are not too happy and we can see behaviors.”
Mulhern said the Arc of Lehigh and Northampton counties, advocates, educates and provide services and support for people with intellectual, development and autism disabilities and their families.
She said an advocate is brought in when the individual or family contact her agency for help because they feel their voice is not being heard.
“In Ajai’s case his parents contacted us,” Mulhern said. “So we pulled Ajai’s team together and had him present his vision statement.”
Mulhern said with Ajai reading his vision statement at one of the IEP meetings with the school district, it gave him a voice.
“It came to the point where the school district looked at this as an opportunity,” Mulhern stated. “I have to credit Parkland Special Education Coordinator Valerie Gulycz, and Director of Special Education Andrew Weber, who were present when Ajai’s vision statement was read and for giving him the opportunity to be placed at Art Fusion.”