An Automotive Classroom, for Students With Special Needs

An Easthampton school has launched Massachusetts’ first automotive program designed for students with autism and other special needs. Educators are hoping it helps kids who’ve struggled in traditional classrooms to stay focused, and envision a lucrative career. 

“There’s your pistons. These are your cylinders,” says mechanic John Robison. “These two engines are out of our Range Rovers.”

Robison is doing rounds with eight high school students at his sprawling garage complex in Springfield, a luxury car-repair service that attracts enthusiasts from around New England.

These teenage boys – all students from the Tri-County Special Education Schools – trail Robison around the car bays and engage him with rapid-fire questions.

“This thing is a drain pan,” Robison explains. “You drain engine oil into this. You know, your teachers can show you how to take it apart.”

To these students, hands-on learning sure beats a classroom. In fact, they’re enrolled at Tri-County Schools because they didn’t do well in a traditional high school. Sixteen-year-old Giovanni, for example, hates sitting at a desk.

“Because all I think about is cars,” Giovanni says. “And I don’t want to be doing work that has nothing to do with cars.”

But since most of these students have severe behavioral, learning, or emotional problems – and many are on the autism spectrum – traditional vocational schools don’t accept them.

Robison understands their frustration firsthand. He dropped out of high school after a troubled childhood – one chronicled in a memoir written by his brother, Augusten Burroughs.  He’s written his own best-selling books about being diagnosed, as an adult, with Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s a condition characterized by social deficits and obsessive interests, some of which Robison turned into assets.

“Sometimes when I was young, people would look at me and they would say, ‘Well he’s in his own world…ignoring other people.’ And I think being able to concentrate very deeply means that I can study problems intently. I have a very good recall of similar problems we’ve solved before,” Robison says. “Those skills confer very powerful benefits on me as I apply them in the automotive field.”

So Robison came up with the idea of a special ed automotive school, geared especially for high-functioning autistic students, housed in his company’s garage bay. He proposed it to the Northeast Center for Youth and Families, which runs Tri-County Schools.

Director Paul Rilla says he spent a year getting the unconventional program licensed by the state department of education, and approved by his board.

“We think the biggest challenge in the beginning is to have the kids feel safe in the environment, and that they’re going to be using tools that – for the most part – most people wouldn’t think they probably should be using,” Rilla says.

Like welding material?

“Oh, not welding just yet! We’re starting with screwdrivers and wrenches,” Rilla says with a laugh.

Rilla hired a teaching staff that knows both cars and special education. Robison acts as an advisor, who understands the quirks and fixations that often go along with autism. He’s unfazed when the students get repeatedly sidetracked by the price of cars on his lot.

“What about…that grey charger over there?” asks a student.

“That’s a modern car,” Robison says. “It’s probably 20 to 30 [thousand dollars].”

“But about a new Ferrari – Italian…Those are expensive?” a student asks.

“Two-hudred-fifty to $400,000, most of them, yeah,” Robison replies.

One teacher tells the boys it’s impolite to ask about money, but not Robison. He offers to bring in car appraisal software.

“You guys are so concerned about the price of cars, that maybe we should teach you something about how to figure that out for yourselves,” he says.

“Is that necessarily like a bad thing? Or no?” asks a student. 

“That’s a good thing. The more you know, the better off you are,” Robison says.

Unlike most vocational programs, this one includes lessons on emotional regulation – using a neuro-feedback machine – and how to read social cues, which may not be critical under the hood of a car, but it is if you want to run a successful business. 

While Robison tends not to make eye contact, his customer interactions seem perfectly comfortable.

“Certainly, what you see in me is an example of how an adult on the autism spectrum can learn very successfully how to use adaptive social skills to behave in a way that other people think is appropriate and expected,” he says.

Since the program started in August, administrators say a few students have dropped out, and one has a tendency to run away from school. But students who have stuck with it – like Giovanni – say they’re grateful for the opportunity to develop marketable skills.

“All the people I met that had Asperger’s or autism – usually they haven’t came this far, and they haven’t been able to do or accomplish what Mr. Robison has,” Giovanni says. “And I find that extremely incredible. And I actually would love to work for his company when I am able to.”

That’s not an unrealistic goal. Robison Service has a reputation for hiring workers of all personality types and learning styles, as long as they know their cars.