Internship gives teen with autism taste of success

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Right out of the gate, it is pretty clear Matthew Plunk isn't your average high school intern.The Wesleyan School senior from Peachtree Corners, Georgia, is doing graduate-school level phonetic transcription of audio recordings of babies and infants communicating with their caregivers.

Oh, and it's all in French.

"I've never actually had a job before this," Plunk says "I like it.  It's a lot of fun."

At 19, Plunk has grown up with autism, and an incredible gift for languages.

That combination made him a natural fit for a paid internship at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Marcus Autism Center, assisting Emory Associate Professor of Medicine Dr. Gordon Ramsay, Ph.D., in his Spoken Communication Lab.

"Matthew is trilingual, in French, Spanish and English," Ramsay says.  "So, we decided we would create an opportunity where he could work with me in French full-time, with my lab manager in Spanish, and everyone else in the building in English."

Plunk says he almost passed on this job, because he's more of a humanities guy than a research scientist.

"I like being a very well-rounded learner, so I decided to go in there and give it my all," Plunk says. "Just getting to practice my language skills, and to just hang with someone I really love, and just do this cool work to help with groundbreaking research, even if I don't entirely understand it, is such a cool opportunity."

It's Cool, and it's rare.This year about 50,000 young adults on the autism spectrum will become adults. Only about 20% of 25-year olds with ASD have a paying job, according to Autism Speaks.Those who do work, the organization says, tend to have lower-paying jobs. So, Ramsay says this internship is designed to even the playing field, one high school student at a time,giving teens like Matthew Plunk their first, positive, taste of the working world.

"If those kids are worried about what a real job looks like, if they haven't had a good experience in high school, or they don't like social situations, this is really an ideal opportunity for us to give them that environment, in a welcoming research lab, where they know they're appreciated," Ramsay says.

The science has come easily to Plunk. The social stuff, like making small talk, has been more difficult.

"I've kind of had social anxiety, trying to deal with people," Plunk says. "And, until this year, I haven't really pursued friendships. I've just kind of let them happen. But since I've really come to terms with who I am and where I want to go, I've honestly been making a lot more close friends this year."

This fall, Plunk is headed to nearby Georgia Tech. His future, he says, feels wide open.

"I think a lot about potential career paths I might take," Plunk says.  "Right now I think I might like to be a diplomat.  Travel the world, meet all sorts of different people." 

This first job has been a crucial first step.

"And, honestly, I've been having a really good time with this internship," Plunk smiles.