A Stepping Stone to Success
According to autism-society.org, One percent of this country’s underage population (children aged three to 17) has an “autism spectrum disorder (ASD).” That’s one in 68 children, with boys outnumbering girls by about five to one.
Autism Speaks provides the following medical definition: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.” There is no medical detection or cure for autism.
And while there is no clear-cut cause, autism is “the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S.,” according to Autism Speaks. What is known is that no two cases are alike. Those individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome are considered high-functioning, with “exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above-average intellectual abilities,” Autism Speaks explains. “Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently. About 25 percent of individuals with ASD are nonverbal but can learn to communicate using other means.”
According to a study conducted by SRI International and dissected by autism-society.org, 56 percent of students with autism finish high school, resulting in a 14 percent unemployment rate for those with disabilities. “Additionally, during the same period, only 21 percent of all adults with disabilities participated in the labor force as compared with 69 percent of the non-disabled population.”
What’s being discovered, however, is that individuals with an autism spectrum disorder are employable, especially after completing a level of education that helps prepare them to be a member of the general workforce.
Janet Schultz owns Blue-J, a Concord-based small office cleaning company that opened in November 2012. Years ago, as a single mom and a special education teacher, she cleaned on weekends and summers for extra money. Along the way she felt the urge to try something new, eventually deciding to run her own business full-time.
“I was a special education teacher for 12 years in Cabarrus County, Charlotte/Mecklenburg and Stanly County, but my fit was always with the OCS program,” Schultz says.
The Occupational Course of Study (OCS), approved by the N.C. State Board of Education, is a career development program that teaches vocational skills by way of a type of work-study process. It also means the special education student earns a high school diploma instead of a certificate. OCS is offered to approved students in grades 9 through 12 within the public school system. Enrolled students acquire work-related skills by actually accumulating work hours that are put toward school credit hours and graduation.
A 9th grader in the OCS program takes part in school-based training – an in-school business of sorts – like a recycling venture (300 hours). Tenth graders participate in non-paying community work outside of school (240 hours) while 11th graders are provided a paying job.
“The school system finds them a job, and a job coach takes them to their job in school transportation,” Schultz explains.
High school seniors are responsible for getting their own paying job. A total of 360 paid employment hours are required to successfully complete the OCS program.
The Autism Handbook says, “Whether a job provides financial support, personal fulfillment, social opportunities or some combination of these, it is a very important component of adult life. In fact, what one does for a living is often regarded as a defining feature of that person and his role in society. Finding the right employment match for a student with ASD may be challenging, but the rewards can also be great in terms of personal satisfaction in a job well done and as an active, participating, well-regarded member of society.”
Schultz agrees with this philosophy wholeheartedly and has taken it on personally. She started considering the idea of employing graduates of the Cabarrus County OCS program late last year. I already knew about (high-schoolers with autism), having taught them. I always found them very interesting and knew the skill set they had would work well with my business,” she says.
Schultz employed the assistance of Tammy Skidmore of Cabarrus County Schools, Kelli Embler at Charlotte’s Autism Speaks, and Right Choice Services, which sent Schultz employment candidates like Eric, who Schultz considers her best, even though he is lower functioning. She says he was unemployed and spending all of his time at home before coming to work for her. Besides Eric, she currently has five other young men – all with Asperger’s – employed part-time at Blue-J.
Schultz also has a “Girl Friday” in Megan Grose, 26. While Megan does not have the skills to clean, she can file and make phone calls.
“It was a big learning curve (taking on employees with autism), but they fit with Blue-J because they want to do it right, they want to please, they want to fix mistakes and their communication skills improve,” Schultz says. “They will always have an adult with them because they don’t have the problem-solving and reasoning skills, but we use it as a teaching moment when responding to a problem. I’ll do, as an employer, whatever I can to make their work experience a positive one and set them up for success.”
Schultz considers her business as one that addresses a social need. Her employees earn more than minimum wage and get raises, but she refuses to coddle; she wants to see them live without limitations. “They have to go through the same interview process. Family support is key, and transportation…some walk or take the bus. Not everyone is cut out for it, but they can learn to adapt to stress levels,” she says.
Schultz was recently given an opportunity to expand her training and marketing by acquiring Niblock Homes as a client. “They are going to allow us to use their facility as a training facility. We can take new employees there to learn the ropes first, we can make videos and conduct training programs there,” she adds.
Schultz sees herself as bringing these young people up to her level. “I demand and expect something from them. Failure is just a building block to success,” she says. “These kids are here to learn skills, then go on to work someplace else. They strive to get better and better. I want to bring awareness to other employers that these are employable folks…loyal and ready to work.”
As of 2012, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Funds Allocation budget totaled $30.86 billion. Of that, only 0.55 percent – or $169 million – went toward autism research.