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Five people stand indoors with certificates

Kate Elliott, left, executive director of the Autism Society of Southern Arizona, presents the Starfish Award to Terry Matsunaga; David Hahn; Wendy Parent-Johnson, executive director of the University of Arizona Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities; and Noel Hennessey.

Autism Society Recognizes New Internship Program

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Autism Society Recognizes New Internship Program

June 30, 2023
EPICS helps engineering students with autism secure summer placements likely to lead to job offers after graduation.

The Autism Society of Southern Arizona recognized the College of Engineering and its collaborators for creating a new internship program. The society’s Starfish Award honors those who contribute to the autistic community.

The college, the University of Arizona Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities and Terry Matsunaga created EPICS with Autism (Engineering Professional Internships for College Students with Autism), and the first two EPICs students began internships this summer – one at Raytheon and one at Texas Instruments.

Matsunaga is a professor of medical imaging and an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering. He co-founded, with Jennifer Casteix, clinical assistant professor in speech, language and hearing sciences, S.T.E.A.M. Camps for children and adolescents on the autism spectrum at the university 13 years ago. S.T.E.A.M. Camps teach and mentor the campers in fields including chemistry, optics, engineering and visual arts, with a goal of encouraging them to enroll in college.

Recently, Matsunaga decided he wanted to do more, because “the job doesn’t end there.” His search of the literature showed that 80% to 85% of college students with autism are unemployed or underemployed.

“That spawned some ideas in my mind,” he said, particularly because he also found that employers extend post-graduation job offers to the majority of student interns they hire. In Raytheon’s case, he said, they make offers to at least 85% of summer interns.

Matsunaga approached David Hahn, the Craig M. Berge Dean of the College of Engineering, to ask for support in creating a program. Hahn enlisted College of Engineering staff members Noel Hennessey, director of the ENGAGED (ENGineering Access, Greater Equity, and Diversity) program, and Heather Moore, coordinator for career engagement. Wendy Parent-Johnson, executive director of the Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities, also provided her expertise to set up the program with best practices, such as pre-interview training and pre-employment/internship transition services with the interns and the company supervisors.

“I am very proud of this overall team, who embraced this opportunity from the start,” said Hahn. “On behalf of Engineering, we are grateful for this recognition, and we are committed to keeping this effort going and gaining momentum.”

For more information on EPICS with Autism, contact Terry Matsunaga.