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Stage set for new director to lead The Arc Carroll County program for adults with autism

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Just a year after earning her master's degree, Britt Burr is creating a groundbreaking program at The Arc Carroll County for adults with autism.

The Westminster High School graduate said she is thrilled to be working her "dream job" and looks forward to building the new program for the local nonprofit that serves those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Don Rowe, The Arc's executive director, said the idea of a program for adults with autism was conceived in the fall of 2013, when the organization was planning a building renovation.

After realizing there would be some extra space, Rowe said the group's leaders discussed ways to best utilize the room and the suggestion was made to provide services for people with autism.

Rowe said the group gathered information and input from family members and parents of individuals with autism through a series of focus groups.

"We were overwhelmed by the number of people that came out to tell us their thoughts about experiences with family members," Rowe said. "What we heard several times is that after people were involved in the school system at age 18 or 21, it was like a cliff — there just weren't any more local services offered."

The Arc secured a grant from the Knott Foundation to cover the cost of a staff member dedicated to creating and managing the new autism program and Burr was hired as the assistant director of autism services. She joined Arc in April.

Burr earned a degree in psychology and theater from McDaniel College and said it became clear during college that she wanted to work with people with autism.

She later earned a master's degree in drama therapy from Kansas State University in December 2013.

"In the year between college and grad school, I worked in an autism program and found the way their mind works to be fascinating," Burr said. "It wasn't until I actually worked with someone on the spectrum that I knew I wanted to do more."

She said her new position was appealing because it would give her the opportunity to work directly with adults with autism, and to build a program from the ground up.

"When I saw a job for designing and planning a new program for adults with autism, I thought it was perfect — it would be so rewarding to build a program and see how much the people and the program grow," she said.

As excited as Burr is about her new role, she acknowledges it will come with challenges. In addition to maintaining funding and community support, Burr said getting people to participate will also be somewhat of an obstacle early on.

"We'll need people with autism to trust that the program will be good for them," Burr said. "Some of these folks have had prior experiences that didn't work out for them, which can make them hesitant to try something new. We need them to take that leap of faith."

The program, which Burr said will evolve as the organization continues to learn the needs of the population it is serving, will offer three classes starting in September. There will be a theater class that meets three days a week where participants will produce one-act plays and practice improvisation exercises; a job development class that will meet two days a week to help participants prepare for the work force; and a relationships class that will meet once a week to help them establish both new and long-term relationships.

"There is a common misconception that people with autism want to be left alone," Burr said. "They do want to be social. They just don't know how to initiate it. There is a fear of not knowing what will happen. We will help them develop skills to enter that situation without having anxiety or help them learn to deal with that anxiety."

In addition to classes, The Arc program will offer a social group. Burr said she was thrilled to have 10 people participate in the first social group outing in July — bowling.

"They were really good bowlers!" Burr laughed. "And it was perfect because they were able to communicate socially about the bowling."

In August, the social group will head to Meltdown — a do-it-yourself ceramics studio on Main Street in Westminster.

To keep the line of communication open, Burr will also run an education group for family members and educators.

"We'll get parents, friends, family and educators to come together to keep up to date on current information regarding autism, learn about new research and all generally stay on the same page with what is happening with our program here," Burr said. "It will be a great chance for them to fire questions at me."

The Arc is working with McDaniel College and Carroll Community College to develop an internship program for people who want to work with adults with autism. Building these relationships and getting community support is vital to the success of the program, according to Burr.

"These people are a part of the community, and we want to be there for them," Burr said. "I think Carroll County has the reputation for being slow to adjust to change, but we need to change that for our autism community. We can't have a community that's slow up on the uptake with this."

Rowe said Burr has done a "phenomenal" job creating the program components and building connections in the community. He said he hopes people embrace the new program.

And while Burr may clock out of her job at The Arc each day, she doesn't leave the work behind. This fall, she will teach an undergraduate drama therapy course at McDaniel College and direct a therapeutic theater program for adults with disabilities offered through the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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