MATC unique program all adds up for student with autism

Mark Feldmann,

April 08, 2022

MILWAUKEE – After graduating high school last spring, Ethan Tutaj-Blaz was a tad flummoxed on figuring out his future.

Moving forward, the Milwaukee resident wanted to find a place where his aptitude for mathematics would be nurtured, his aversion to English and writing classes understood, and his autism accepted.

Milwaukee Area Technical College provided the perfect solution.

Tutaj-Blaz enrolled in the first cohort of MATC’s Uniquely Abled Academy, which teaches students with Level 1 autism (individuals who need less support) the skills needed to prepare for a career as a computer numerical control (CNC) operator.

On January 13, Tutaj-Blaz and five other students completed more than 500 hours of classroom instruction and hands-on training and formed the UAA’s first graduating class. The students earned CNC Setup and Operations certificates, enabling them to join the workforce in several entry-level positions, including machine trainee, machinist apprentice and CNC operator, with salaries starting at $14-$17 per hour. 

“I didn’t feel like the typical college experience was for me,” said Tutaj-Blaz, who graduated from Marquette University High School last May. “I think I have the knowledge to complete the courses, but I felt it could be a struggle. I thought about taking a year off, but my mother heard about the UAA. I enjoy a good challenge and the program sounded perfect for me.” 

Starting last August, program students met every weekday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Downtown Milwaukee Campus. Their classes included machine trades math, blueprint reading, manual vertical milling machine operation and CNC vertical machine center function.

(See UAA in action at:

They learned how to follow basic safety practices in the machine shop, to interpret industrial/engineering drawings, apply precision measuring methods to part inspection and perform basic machine tool equipment setup and operation. 

The first sessions were a bit eye-opening, Tutaj-Blaz admitted. 

“I was thinking it would be more like welding, with sparks flying everywhere,” he said. 

Tutaj-Blaz quickly grasped the subject matter — especially the math — and enjoyed the next 16 weeks. The small size of the class made the program appealing. “With six students and three instructors, we had plenty of time to ask questions. Having a small cohort was very beneficial,” he said.

Born in New York and raised in Milwaukee, Tutaj-Blaz attended the Milwaukee Public Schools’ Maryland Avenue Montessori School and Golda Meir School for gifted and talented students before heading to Marquette for high school.

He showed his flair for math at an early age, taking calculus in eighth grade and multi-variable calculus and Advanced Placement (AP) computer science classes as a high school junior. “I have always been pretty gifted in math,” he said.

His autism hasn’t affected his educational success, although he admitted he’s working to hone his interpersonal skills. “I can be a bit of an oddball,” he said. “I have noticed that I might be a little different than other people. But then again everyone's a little weird in their own way.”

According to the Autism Society, more than 3.5 million Americans live with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The latest report from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes the prevalence rate in the U.S. is on the rise, estimating that one in 50 children currently fall on the autism spectrum.

Many individuals with ASD are either unemployed or underemployed. The Uniquely Abled Project sets out to shift people’s perspectives by placing individuals with perceived employment challenges in high-skill jobs, connecting the unique abilities of the neurodiverse community with careers that capitalize on their skill sets.

“We’re providing these students the tools to succeed, the confidence to be independent and a real college experience,” said Kathleen Bathie, MATC’s UAA program coordinator. 

MATC’s program is the result of a partnership with the Uniquely Abled Project, which is based in Los Angeles, and was established in 2013 by Ivan Rosenberg, an aerospace industry consultant and parent of two children on the autism spectrum. 

“The program is another innovative approach where MATC is working to nurture the talents of individuals in our district while meeting employer demands in an industry that needs skilled workers,” said Laura Bray, MATC vice president for college advancement and external communication. “This is a clear win-win for students and employers.”

Tutaj-Blaz is continuing his technical education at MATC, taking tool and die courses this spring. “My ultimate goal is to work in a prototype department and design parts,” he said. He also is considering learning how to develop the software used by the CNC machines.

After the spring semester, Tutaj-Blaz is close to securing a summer internship at a CNC firm. “That will let me connect what I have been learning with how things actually operate in the workplace,” he said. “That’s a valuable next step to getting a job and working.

“MATC and this program have allowed me to focus on the skills I will need to be successful,” he added. “I get to use my hands, use my head and challenge myself.”

Tutaj-Blaz said he believes the program has matured him and helped him focus. He takes his homework seriously, he’s managing this time better and he’s even trying to grow a mustache.

“I guess I’m growing up,” he said.

Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 25,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 170 academic programs; and transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.