Autistic teens are getting job and interpersonal skills they need to succeed, thanks to a new Trial Court pilot at the Probate & Family and District Courts. 

The program is the brainchild of Attorney Vanda Khadem, who practices family law, special education law, and serves as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). Attorney Khadem founded a non-profit, the Autism Higher Education Foundation, in 2006 after her daughter was diagnosed with autism as a 3-year old.

Once the Foundation’s first project, a music instruction program for autistic children at The Boston Conservatory, became self-sufficient, Attorney Khadem turned her attention to new ventures. She has now focused on creating legal internships for high school students with autism and related disabilities, starting with pilots in the court system. Over the past two months, courts in Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Barnstable and Bristol Counties have committed to launching pilot programs to work with students with autism and related disabilities from local high schools. Each student is carefully chosen, and is accompanied at all times by a school staff person.

Probate & Family Court Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez, who helped launch the program, is pleased so far with its initial progress. “This is an extremely innovative idea that gives autistic teens valuable opportunities to interact with their community and the court system in a positive way,” says Chief Justice Ordoñez. “We want these kids to blossom while they’re with us. They’re helping our courts while they learn professional and interpersonal skills—which boost their self-esteem and independence as young adults.”

Brookline District Court Clerk-Magistrate Edward Savage and his team are working with one senior from Brookline High School. “We want this program to be a success for these students,” says Clerk-Magistrate Savage. “We’re taking the time to explain everything step-by-step to our intern Sarah, so she feels confident about what she has to get done, and is happy to be at our court. We hope she’s able to gain valuable work experience for the future while she’s with us.”

Essex County Register of Probate Pamela Casey O’Brien is another early adopter. She commends Operations Supervisor Annette Gemellaro for her efforts to ensure their court’s interns get off to a strong start. “We really hope other courts consider this worthwhile program," says Register Casey O’Brien. "It’s a win-win for the kids and the courts. We’re helping these students learn practical work skills while they help us with projects we’re often forced to put off because we just haven’t had the personnel to spare.” 

Attorney Khadem plans to expand the program slowly, with the goal that participating courts could eventually work with up to five students, depending on a court’s needs. The goal of the program is to address the long-term challenges young adults with autism face regarding future employment opportunities. Attorney Khadem aims to ultimately connect every high school in the Commonwealth to their local courthouses, making them valuable resources for vocational training opportunities and possible job placement for young adults with autism within the legal community.

The program is data-driven: every month the Foundation will meet with each court liaison to track student progress, gathering evidence to present to the legal community in order to give this population opportunities for paid employment. Filing, shredding, scanning, organizing, and data entry are all part of the baseline office skill inventory the students will master over the course of their internships. Students are also trained in court etiquette and protocol, appropriate dress, communication, and skill development.

“So far, we’re off to a great start, and really hope this program is a success around the state,” said Danielle Slaney, Probation Officer Manager for the Norfolk Probate & Family Court. “Our intern Sri is a pleasure to work with, and has been a huge benefit for the court, helping us with various projects that we haven’t been able to tackle until now. We have such a large backlog of work that needs to get done that we’ve asked Sri to come in two days a week instead of one.”

For more information about the program, please contact Attorney Khadem: vkhadem@khademlaw.com.