Q&A - our TCS high school program for students with autism and developmental differences

TCS Auto Program in the Springfield Automotive Complex, Springfield, MA (c) J E Robison
We are in our second year of the TCS Auto high school program and we’re starting to get questions about the program.  I’ve listed a few common questions and answers below.

Who is behind the TCS Auto Program?

John Elder Robison, an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences, originally envisioned the TCS Auto Program.  John is the founder of Robison Service – a high-end auto service and restoration business – and an owner of the Springfield Automotive Complex, a multi tenant garage complex in Western Massachusetts.

John is also the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at The College of William & Mary, and the author of four books on life with autism.  After receiving many requests to apprentice special needs teens at his complex, John decided to make that a reality.

Our program is licensed as a special ed high school for up to 18 students. Our operations are overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).  

Who's the ideal TCS Auto Student?
Our ideal student is 15 or older, and having trouble staying on track in high school.  He or she may have autism, ADHD, or other issues affecting his behavior.  The student may have trouble focusing on class and doing work.  Behavior is probably a problem.

The student might be a candidate for the districts vocational program, but their behavior is too disruptive.  Perhaps they tried a program like that, and got into trouble. 

The student may not want to be in school, and there may be talk of dropping out.  Yet the student wants to grow up, work, and live independently.  The student may talk of a career in the trades, or the military.  They may be thinking of college but not sure if it will work out.  

This is a student for whom traditional school isn’t working.  The student may be 18, and not ready to graduate.  Our ideal student has promise but needs help making the transition from high school to work or college.

Students learn about brakes and suspension at TCS Auto Program (c) J E Robison

What is TCS Auto Program about?

Throughout human history, people learned their future work trades at the sides of experienced masters.  That system has survived as the vocational model in a few public schools but is has largely been replaced by more abstract book learning.  That’s a fine system for some students, but what about those who still learn best by doing?

As an autistic adult, and as a parent of a son on the autism spectrum I have experienced this firsthand.  I myself failed in a traditional high school program, even as I found success working with my hands.  Today we know there are millions of young people like me – kids who fall through the cracks of our current educational system.

Our TCS program returns to an older hands-on way of learning; one that history has shown to be effective for all kinds of people. We combine academics, traditional vocational learning, and life skills and post-high-school transition coaching.  We work with IEP public school students whose behavioral challenges preclude continuation in regular school or participation in a traditional vocational program.  We take students who are on a track to failure and turn them around with positive engagement and participation in a real working community – one that was founded by a former special needs student.

What are you teaching?

We are a unique high school program that focuses on teaching transition and life skills in the context of the automobile trade.  The TCS Auto Program is the only high school program our state Dept of Elementary and Secondary Education has ever licensed in a real working trade complex.

TCS Auto is located within co-founder John Robison’s Springfield Automotive Complex, which is also home to our city’s backup 911 ambulance operations; J E Robison Service (restoration and repair of BMW, Land Rover, Mercedes, Rolls Royce and Bentley); our city’s child safety seat program, MedCare transfer ambulances; Tebaldi Line Right (alignment and undercar service); Mr. Detail (auto detailing); and Tech Auto Service (general auto repair.)

Students receive classroom instruction at the Tri County Campus in Easthampton, and vocational/transition instruction at our auto complex.  Students are exposed to the wide variety of work performed in our complex and welcomed into the various operations. Seniors are also offered paid internships in the complex.  

Students are free to find an area of interest and learn at their own pace under the supervision of our licensed staff.  Areas of study include:
  • Basic auto mechanics
  • Auto cleaning and detailing
  • Vehicle inspection and maintenance
  • Parts department operations
  • Service management
In addition, students learn good work practices, how to stay safe, and how to dress presentably, act responsibly, and present themselves favorably.

What do students leave us with, in terms of credentials?

  • We use outside grants to fund driver education where needed, to help our graduates get driver licenses – essential for most work in Western MA;
  • We use outside grants to fund inspector license training, which allows graduates who choose that program to inspect motor vehicles in Massachusetts;
  • Students receive diplomas from the referring school districts;
  • Students receive safety shoes, uniforms, and tools that they are free to take on graduation.

What benefits have you seen in students?

Once started in the program, our students have shown:
  • Pride in being part of the program
  • Diminished absenteeism
  • Students who were at risk of dropping out don’t
  • Students have a new focus on a brighter future
  • In most cases we see significantly better behavior
  • Students show initiative and responsibility
Our graduates are going on to college and/or work.  

Who can enroll in the program?  

We are licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to serve high school students whose IEPs call for out of district placement for behavioral challenges, autism, ADHD, intellectual disability, and other conditions.

Jonathan B  . . . one of our graduates who now works in the complex while attending college (c) J E Robison
Who pays for the program?

We are paid by referring school districts, who may obtain some reimbursement from the state.  We also accept donations of cars and material, which is sold or raffled to finance driver training, tools and clothes for students, and other things the state does not pay for.

Students take pride in working on engines and vehicles that are sold to support the programs they are part of.

Are there any expenses for which students or parents are responsible?

All costs are paid by the referring districts, the state, and private grants and donations.  We serve the public schools of Massachusetts, and as such, do not charge tuition or fees to families or students.  

What's the difference between this program and a regular vocational high school?

Our program is licensed as a special ed program.  We're only able to accept students whose IEPs call for out of district placement for challenges we are equipped to support.  This allows us to give much more concentrated assistance to students, to maximize their chances of success.  We have much smaller student to staff ratios than regular public school programs - less than 5:1 in most classes.  

A public vocational high school admits all students.  Our program is restricted to students with special needs. 

Where is the Springfield Auto Complex and TCS Auto Program

We are at 347 Page Boulevard in Springfield, MA, 01104.  

Want to know more?

Call John Robison at 413-785-1665
Email John at robison at robisonservice dot com


Robert said…
Mr. Robison,
Like you, I grew up on the autistic spectrum back in the 70s (was recently diagnosed). I did express an interest to learn a trade. But my father, who was a dentist (maybe on spectrum too) was, like a lot of parents, against it because he did not want me to have the "blue collar culture" - the swearing, drinking, smoking, having kids you can't afford, no interest in current events, going to the bar and bowling all the time culture and that I would not be able to deal with things like the language because I was too sensitive. I am sure some parents today bring that up. What do you say to them about "that issue"? Also, I remember being terrified as a teen to ask for a job. Is there any way such a fear is dealt with in your students? I mean, they can have a great resume but if someone is too terrified to even ask, it won't do much for them. You are right that college is not for everyone and many high schools - like mine - prepare students very poorly. I will say, if you are on an autistic spectrum DO NOT major in nursing, it was a disaster! Finally, in the first photograph, what coating did you use on the garage floor? I like it and might use it where I live.
Robert said…
Oh, John did I overwhelm you? Didn't mean to, I mean, you haven't answered.
John Robison said…
Robert, to answer your questions . . .

The "blue collar culture" you describe has never been part of my life. I have never been like you describe and your father feared.

I do not smoke or drink, and have always been able to afford the children and family I support. My guess is, with all due modesty, I do considerably better in that regard than most dentists.

As for "asking for work" - At this point in my carer I don't really ask for work. The body of what we have done speaks for us, and work makes its way here as a result.

It's really good when you get to that point because I agree - asking for work is hard.

Being autistic I am focused, detail oriented, interested in the minutiae of the cars, etc. Those are advantages for what we do

The garage floor is finished in a two-part epoxy

And no, you did not overwhelm me. I just got home from New York, where I did a program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. It was a long drive but they are a great group and I was honored to be invited to speak at their Seaver Autism Conference

Robert said…
Thank you. I do notice that you want to also start a culinary program, but, and I don't mean to be a jerk to ask this but it begs the question: Why? I cannot think of a worse place for an autistic person than the food industry (well, nursing, but I found that out too). Commercial kitchens are noisy, stressful, smelly, chaotic places that are full of NT drama. The front of the house is not much better, I have had other workers talk about me because I, for example, paced and was threatened with being fired over that. Long hours are also common and most of the people in that industry never took a psychology class and would never know about autism. I would think almost any other trade would be a better situation than culinary.
John Robison said…
Actually, the school I partnered with for this already had a culinary program in place. I agree with you that kitchens are noisy, etc.

D Marcotte said…
What a great program - I shared it on my Facebook page asd-dr.com
Unknown said…
Hi there!
In 2009, my son's sister-in-law I saw a video of me singing a song that I composed the lyrics. At the end of my song my son's wife's sister said.

"Stephan! I think your father has Asperger's syndrome!"

Since she was a M.D. pediatrician
specializing in developmental,
disorders I attempted additional

A follow-up exam confirmed that I
"suffer the symptoms of Asperger's
disorder. DSMV-III. "

My life was a struggle during my
primary and high school education, and my family life. My spouse asked our marriage councilor if I
could overcome my social deficits.
She was told that I had progressed as far I could. My spouse divorced me later that same year. I was 59 years old.

My life has had some successes.
B.S. Electrical Engineering 1973
M.S. Electrical Engineering 1978
B.S. Engineering Studies in
Civil Engineering, USU 2013
Employed continuously 1973-2003 as a VLSI design engineer.
Author of 15 text books.
Author of 12 professional papers
Inventor of 23 U.S. Patents
Passed the FE EIT exam in 2005.

Much of my discoveries and other accomplishments I credit to my
Asperger's perspective and intense interests.

A very unique life story. For more
information contact me.

Timothy O'Shaughnessy
(435) 535-6340 or at
Anonymous said…
going to the bar and bowling all the time culture and that I would not be able to deal with things like the language because I was too sensitive. TCS

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