Ohio natives Dina ’88 and Dave ’92 Shirk had lived in Texas for years, but when it came time for their son who is on the autism spectrum to figure out life after high school, they knew the best place to look for help: The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Nisonger Center, serving people with developmental disabilities.

The Nisonger Center’s TOPS program—short for Transition Options in Postsecondary Settings for Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities—gave their son Austin opportunities to take college classes, explore internships and develop skills. Being accepted into the TOPS program was a beacon of hope for Austin and his family, following years of academic challenges and fruitless job searches.

After ensuring Austin had developed the independent living skills he needed to maintain his own apartment in Columbus, Austin started with TOPS. He attended classes at The Ohio State University, including a disabilities studies course that helped him learn about and become more accepting of some of his own differences. He also made friends—something that he’d found challenging in the past. Says Dina, “TOPS gave him the confidence to try new things.”

Austin also found his vocational calling through TOPS. He completed an office assistant internship and enjoyed the filing and organizing aspect, but when it came time to answer the phones, “I felt like I would get nervous and that I wouldn’t do the best job of handling it,” recalls Austin. During his two internships at dental clinics—Nisonger Center’s own dental clinic and Dr. Robert Garrison’s private practice—he developed a knack for sterilizing equipment and organizing instrumentation trays. After graduating from TOPS, Austin landed a full-time position with the Central Sterile Supply department of the Wexner Medical Center, where he has worked for more than two years.

As Ohio State graduates, Dina and Dave are happy their alma mater has given this life-changing opportunity to their son. To help other young adults with developmental disabilities, they created an endowment to support Nisonger programming in perpetuity. “TOPS really did give the results we’d hoped for with Austin. To see how happy he is in his life now is a real blessing,” says Dave.“Do not underestimate how incredible of an employee a person with a disability can be. These young people get shortchanged, but the loyalty and work ethic they bring to a day’s work is incredible. This is the opportunity that TOPS can provide.”