Danny and Claire Combs” son Dylan was about three years old when they started to notice some differences in his development. Dylan’s speech was delayed, and he walked on his toes. The Combs family began speech and occupational therapy to help their son, but there seemed to be something else going on. Eventually, Dylan was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
“When we first found out, we had a lot of different experiences with therapists who would work with Dylan on his gross and fine motor skills, speech, and social skills. They were wonderful, but we were looking for a different approach,” Danny Combs says.
The search for a different approach led Danny and Claire to found Teaching the Autism Community Trades (TACT) in 2016. TACT’s first class was a ukulele-building class, in partnership with the Stapleton Music Lab. Now, they teach a variety of skill-building classes to kids with autism, including auto mechanics, carpentry, electronics, and coding/robotics.
“When you learn a trade, you get fine motor, gross motor, and social skills while you work in a more natural environment,” says Combs, a music teacher, as well as a fourth-generation woodworker and mechanical tinkerer.
Studies show that adults with autism have the highest unemployment rate in the country, at about 80 to 90 percent. TACT hopes to change that through its career path classes. New this fall, high school students with autism can receive school credit in auto mechanics, carpentry, and computer science through TACT. Later this year, Combs plans to launch two companies—one construction and one auto mechanic—in which some students would be able to work, as they get older.
TACT offers a mobile program, too. It partners with local organizations to bring small group classes to locations in which the
children are already comfortable. Classes are tailored to the needs of the group, and serve verbal and nonverbal children.
“People sometimes assume that because children are nonverbal, they are not good at anything, but they haven’t been given the chance. There are so many untapped skills,” says Becky Mershon, TACT’s director of student services. “You don’t need to be verbal to be successful.”
Summer 2017 was TACT’s first season offering a full lineup of camps, all with a maximum of six students per class.
“One really amazing thing (with summer camp) was when one of our students walked away with an electric guitar that he built himself,” says Mershon. “(Working here) has reaffirmed how bright and talented these students are, and that they can do amazing things.”