Transition to Independence: YAI’s Free Young Adult Program Teaches Life Skills While Building Confidence

Mon, February 11, 2019

Authors: Elizabeth Asen & Nicole Riccio

Pictured above: John H. and Alicia F.M. holding their Taste Buds “Taste the Rainbow” Certificates.

Pictured above: John H. and Alicia F.M. holding their Taste Buds “Taste the Rainbow” Certificates.

Cooking, planning, and meditating. These are the three pillars of YAI’s Transition to Independence (TTI) program, a free group for young adults, ages 17-21, who are diagnosed with autism. The goal of the program is to learn new life skills through the combination of hands-on learning and group discussions in a low student-to-staff ratio. Since the program’s inception three years ago, TTI participants have gained knowledge and confidence in kitchen skills, life skills, and emotional regulation. The program aims to enhance social-emotional well-being so that participants can live more independently as they enter adulthood. 

In the Kitchen Skills group, students learn essential cooking techniques from a professional chef at Taste Buds Kitchen in Chelsea. Direct Support Professionals also work alongside the students to model skills and monitor kitchen safety. The Kitchen Skills course has the motto “Taste the Rainbow,” in which participants are encouraged to try a variety of textures, tastes, and smells. Exposing the students to new foods allows them to take risks, step out of their comfort zones, and try something new.  Enter Taste Buds Kitchen, and one may see the puzzled looks of skeptical students wondering how the combination of zucchini and chocolate could possibly be appetizing. Once the cookies cool, students hold their breath and take a bite. They smile with surprise. It turns out, you cannot taste the zucchini at all. 

During class, participants make one sweet and one savory recipe, while learning how to safely use cooking utensils, such as knives, graters, and hand mixers. The group helps participants to feel confident in their ability to prepare meals for themselves. Staff encourage participants to socialize with their peers and to form new friendships while enjoying a delicious meal together. 

From left to right: Sean L., John H., Alicia F.M., and Dylan S. holding the zucchini chocolate chip cookies they

Pictured above from left to right: Sean L., John H., Alicia F.M., and Dylan S. holding the zucchini chocolate chip cookies they baked in Kitchen Skills.

In TTI’s Life Skills group, the participants hover around the table studying budgeting, time management, or disability rights. They discuss personal experiences which require judgement, decision-making, risk-taking, and problem-solving in instructor guided group discussion. Participants shape the curriculum of this course as the subjects are based upon the daily living skills they would like to learn more about. While collaborating with their peers, group members strengthen their communication and problem-solving skills, share their own personal challenges, and provide supportive feedback. For example, participants role-play social situations they may encounter and discuss how to appropriately respond. Ultimately, the group aims to go out into the community to apply these lessons in a real-life setting, such as visiting a gym to discuss physical fitness and gym etiquette or planning a trip to the park to participate in a community event.

If you enter the Yoga Mindfulness class, you’ll see a row of yoga mats and students mastering tree pose or quietly meditating. Participants engage in calming physical and mental activities that promote movement, relaxation, and socialization. After yoga, students learn about mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is an approach to stress reduction that helps group members understand the connection between their bodies and minds. Weekly topics include cultivating happiness, loving-kindness, stress reduction techniques, and establishing a positive self-image. The group discussions allow participants to discuss aspects of their lives that may cause stress and how they can use mindfulness to manage their emotions effectively. Group members frequently share their concerns about going to college and wanting to live independently. They receive support from the facilitators and their peers on how to use mindfulness to manage the stress that comes with having more responsibilities.

Many TTI participants attend two or even all three of the groups. In attending more than one group, students interact with their peers on a consistent basis and establish friendships that transcend the classroom. TTI enhances the lives of the people with autism by teaching them skills and empowering them to become more self-sufficient as they enter and prepare for adulthood.

Transition to Independence’s spring sessions begin February 26 and run through the end of June. The groups are open to young adults, ages 17-21, who are diagnosed with autism. Participants must meet NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene program requirements. If you are interested in learning more about the YAI Transition to Independence program, please contact the LINK department at 212.273.6182 and visit our website at www.yai.org/services/transition-independence