Less than seven years ago, Dan Hackett was unemployed and had low-self-worth, feeling disconnected, misunderstood, unfulfilled and depressed. He went to Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. for support. YAP is a nonprofit organization in 23 states and the District of Columbia that provides community-based alternatives to youth incarceration, behavioral health institutions and other out-of-home placements for youth and young people referred through social services or youth justice systems.
Today, Hackett is a self-proclaimed autism advocate who promotes accurate understanding and fair treatment of people with autism. In June on the seventh anniversary of his involvement with YAP, Hackett will join YAP Director of International Programs Diana Matteson to present “A Co-production Model for Working with Young People” at the 27th European Social Services Conference in Milan, Italy. He will describe how YAP’s Advocate mentor model changed his life by helping him identify and realize his gifts and talents.
“I connected with YAP services to gain assistance with living on my own. What I received though was so much more,” Hackett said. “I quickly realized, YAP is not simply a service to help others; it is an opportunity to change my mindset to one of positive self-worth, value, and be given the ability to overcome obstacles and accomplish anything I set my mind to…in other words, they truly gave me the means to live my best life. If you would have told me seven years ago that I would be standing on a stage in Milan, Italy, telling my story, I would have said you are crazy.”
YAP, which operates in more than 100 communities in 23 states and the District of Columbia, is a nonprofit with programs based on an Advocate-mentor model. YAP’s trained, paid Advocate mentors help individuals identify their strengths and connect them and their parents/guardians/family members with tools to help strengthen their foundation.
Over the past few years, Hackett has participated in making The Rain Man Effect, a film about how often autism is misunderstood, causing people on the spectrum to be discriminated against, even feared and limiting their opportunities to find and keep employment. He was also one of the first editorial staff members of Pittverse Magazine, launched in 2013 by Pittsburgh Allegheny County YAP Director Brian Kluchurosky and a small group of writers. Pittverse Magazine has evolved to become a 70-page quarterly magazine produced by more than 50 people on the autism spectrum living across four states -- Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana and Texas
“For the first time [as a YAP participant], my voice and opinions were seriously considered. I was not told what I needed to do...instead I was asked what I needed. I was able to take steps towards accomplishing tasks at a pace that I determined,” Hackett said. “Through those accomplishments I found my own voice, which allowed me to be able to be a voice for others.”
Through his advocacy work, Hackett is bringing more awareness to how inaccurate depictions and stereotypes have contributed to high unemployment and underemployment for people with autism spectrum disorder. Through opportunities like the Milan conference, he is showing people how strength-based and community-based support benefits individuals, employers and communities.