Julie Tracy is the founder of Urban Autism Solutions, an organization that helps young adults with autism and related challenges. UAS provides vocational and social opportunities to Chicago Public School students after high school. Julie was kind enough to share her unique story with us. She answered our questions about UAS, how they measure social-emotional learning and growth using Otus, and so much more.
Hi Julie! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure! I’d love to. By trade, I am a Speech and Language Pathologist. I am also the proud parent of two young men, one of whom has autism.
Can you tell us more about that?
Back in the 90s, when my son was in high school, the awareness around autism wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. When my son was in high school, he really hit a huge wall and struggled tremendously. Our house became a dangerous place, and my son, who is this wonderful, kind, and lovely person, changed a lot and became lost. At that moment in 2012, we said ‘if this is happening to us, what is happening to other people in search of the next step?’
Was this the catalyst for founding Urban Autism Solutions?
Yes. In 2012, UAS was created around our need for a path after high school. We wanted our son to have a life as independent as possible, to be able to do all of the fun stuff in the city of Chicago that other people his age like to do. We knew we wanted to be in the city for its diversity, employment opportunities, and access to public transportation.
What were some of the tenets that UAS was founded on?
We started with residential, vocational, and social opportunities. My husband and I applied for and received a license to run a community-based group home, and began a building vocational farm and 4-H program that is now one of the largest in the state.
Can you share more about the agriculture program?
I saw what working in agriculture did for people by being away from screens, being outdoors, and working together to solve problems. Sports weren’t always a good fit for my son, so the farm became our family. The Growing Solutions Farm serves 30 students from Chicago Public Schools every summer. Students are paid for their work, and for most young adults this is their first job, first boss, first uniform. Here, they learn to work as a team to farm 10,000 pounds of produce every year that we share with different food pantries.
That’s amazing! We know you’ve grown a lot and have so many more programs available. Tell us a little bit about how you found Otus?
I’m a data accountability fanatic. I knew we needed something. We couldn’t continue using Excel and graphs to track growth. Having a system like Otus is wonderful to help with data management, and it allows us to display in simple ways how students are making progress. It’s really important to be able to track this progress and eloquently show what’s happening.
How do you show and share growth with Otus?
It’s so simple to record every encounter with any student in Otus. We have custom standards in Otus, and while we don’t use them every day for every young adult, having the option to match a data point with a certain behavior or observation is really invaluable. To be able to show we had thousands of encounters with students—it just tells a wonderful story.
How do you teach social-emotional learning?
We start with awareness. For people with sensory issues, it can be elusive. We start with questions like, ‘What does it feel like? Do you feel a tightening in your chest, or is your face getting red? Are your hands sweating? Are your fists clenching up?’ That’s a big part of the curriculum here—awareness. It’s a long path from understanding what’s happening inside of yourself to what’s happening inside someone else.
After awareness, what other steps lead toward growth in your program?
Next steps are the regulation of those feeling states, which is a long process. We might use colors to describe those states, and focus on questions like, ‘How do we get from a red state back to a green state?’ From there, we move to what’s known as reading the room, or thinking about what other people might be thinking.
It’s a lot of fun because it’s not just what someone else is thinking. It’s ‘What are they thinking that you may be thinking, and how are you going to respond in those circumstances?’ Then we move to handling disagreements and problem-solving. The end goal, of course, is peaceful conflict resolution, which honestly is a skill that even very few adults have.
What happens if we don’t focus on social-emotional learning?
I think if we just had a better way in our community to process our feelings, we would be in a better place. If we don’t get better at cognitive control and awareness of what others might need, the result is a lonely, disconnected society. Being aware of your own thinking and your own tendencies in the moment and regulating those feelings is important.
How do you approach social-emotional learning in the classroom and your program?
My motto is ‘you have to give a story to get a story.’ Your story better be authentic because students know when it’s not. You have to share the real things that are bothering you (with limits, of course). For example, ‘today my husband said this to me, and this is how it made me feel.’ My students love real stories.
How do you know social-emotional growth is happening in real-time?
We see this in action as it plays out in classes. We might hear a snippet in the communication class about something that happened in the social-emotional learning class, and how they applied and connected that to something they learned while they were at their job.
One student shared with me once that their supervisor made a comment that made them feel a certain way. Their response was ‘Well, I figured she was having a bad day.’ They took her perspective and regulated their own emotions. And this was a kid who really had a hair-trigger temper.
Any advice for classroom teachers as they approach SEL this year?
I would always defer to classroom teachers for their expertise, but if I could give any advice from my program, it would be to take the idea of ‘catching up’ and throw it out the window. What I would do is try to be very present for every student. Listen to what they have accomplished and learned. Some skills were gained, and some things didn’t go well.
Any parting words?
No one has all of the right answers. I always tell my students that. I am not an expert on someone else’s life. Every time someone comes to you with a problem, most people believe they have to solve it. You really don’t have to solve all of the problems, and that’s not what people want anyway. They just want to be heard.
To learn more about Urban Autism Solutions and the significant role they play in their community, check out their story here.