by Brandi Pinsker | 12 Sep 2022
Industry Commentary, Op-Ed
Every May, while many parents are celebrating high school graduations and preparing to tearfully send their teens off to college, there is another group of parents tearfully welcoming their kids back home, to the sofa, to stare at their iPads. These kids have no social group, no work prospects, and definitely no college plans. They have autism.
I hear from the parents of these kids every May and my empathy for them runs deep because next year, I will join them. My son Eli, who has autism, will complete his last year of high school next May. Once those school doors shut, all opportunities for learning, being productive, and making social connections disappear. After high school there is nothing, and the word “nothing” being applied to your child’s future at the age of 18 is terrifying. I got a glimpse of this dilemma at the beginning of summer 2022 as I tried to plan for his 12-week summer vacation and was faced with a blank slate.
Like all parents, I imagined a bright future for my kid. Despite Eli’s diagnosis, I always assumed (naively) that we would find a program, a group, or an opportunity of some sort that would create a meaningful life for him as an adult. With enough intervention and support I assumed we would find a way for him to be productive and have a social group, even if it looked a little different than his peers. But it didn’t happen.
The older he got, the more doors I saw slam shut. The summer camps and clubs that (sort of) welcomed him as a child don’t take adults. Many kids his age are working summer jobs, hanging out with friends, and making lists of what they need to buy for their dorm rooms. But Eli has a severe speech delay, reads at a second-grade level, and lacks the executive functioning required to make good decisions. He’s a smart kid in many ways, but his abilities do not align with any existing job descriptions. He has a better memory than anyone I know, but only for things that he wants to remember. He’s good at math and used to write out and solve linear equations in chalk on our driveway. He loves maps and can find anything on Google Maps without an address. Unfortunately, not even cartographers are hiring for this rare talent.
When I compare parenting a child with autism to parenting a neurotypical child, I think of how some parents watch their kids open doors for themselves, some help them choose which door to open, and some hold the doors open and hope their kids will walk through them. But parents of kids on the spectrum don’t even have doors—they’re faced with walls and have to create something that looks like a door, then try to push their unwilling kid through it. This year, when we hit this familiar wall, I was determined to carve an Eli-shaped door, which became a pilot program to employ adults with autism at my company, Project Genius.
At Project Genius, we run our own warehouse. Mixed in with challenging warehouse jobs are lots of tasks that are routine and don’t require complex decision-making skills. With modifications, I knew Eli could do some of these tasks. We made some minor modifications. Instead of picking by title, we had to assign numeric locations to eliminate confusion. Regular box cutters were replaced with safety box cutters. We hired a job coach to supervise his work, answer questions, and keep him on task. In less than a week, he learned to read a packing list and pick orders. It was just a few hours a day, but he was doing it . . . and doing it well. I got a glimpse of what a productive future might look like for him. With cautious optimism, I felt a glimmer of hope.
Like most kids with autism, Eli gets confused when things change. So we had to get strict about putting things in the same spot and doing things in the same order every day.But when it comes to running a business, strict processes can be an asset, so Eli inspired us to add structure that we probably should have had in place long ago.
I’ve been thinking about creating an Eli-shaped door for more than a decade, but I didn’t know if Eli’s door would open for other kids on the spectrum as well. So we hired another member for our A(utism) Team, Harry, who graduated high school a few years ago. He started with a 1:1 aide who helped him learn all of the steps involved in pricing products. When Harry’s aide returned to college at the end of the summer, we weren’t certain that he’d be able to continue working. But Harry showed us that he can unbox, ticket, and repackage products all on his own. And he had gained supervisory skills too: if others are ticketing at the same station, he helps them correct their work.
Next, we brought on Ben. Ben doesn’t really speak and has hand tremors that make it hard for him to lift too much weight or work on things that require fine motor skills (like pricing). He’s also afraid of dumpsters, so that ruled out a few housekeeping jobs. But with the help of his state-provided aide, he’s learning to price products. The aide created a detailed checklist to break down the process into clearly defined and diagrammed steps. He practices in our office for a couple of hours and then practices again at home. I don’t know if it will take him months or years to learn how to put a price label on a box. It requires him to overcome some pretty big obstacles. But if autism has taught me anything, it’s patience. So we will wait, encourage and be his biggest cheering section when it happens.
We’ve still got plenty to work on to make our program run smoothly. For example, if Harry runs into a problem, he doesn’t know how to ask for help. To improve on that, we moved the A Team into our conference room, which doubles as the entrance to our office and a hallway. Without asking them to do it, everyone in the company checks in with Harry every time they walk by. But having the A Team in the front of our office demonstrates for everyone, from our UPS driver to our landlord, that diversity works. We also have to figure out the compensation part of this, which is the biggest hurdle. Some of these young adults have healthcare benefits that are jeopardized if they earn too much. So there’s some research and a meeting with our accountant in my future.
Project Genius’s summer A Team program was a success, but the real success stories are Ben, Harry, and Eli. We’ve got a lot to learn if we want to grow this program, which we do. To shorten our learning curve, we’ve partnered with a local non-profit that helps kids on the spectrum transition from school to employment. With their help, I hope to create a program that provides on-the-job training and long-term jobs. My larger vision is to provide a free playbook that other companies can use to launch this program in their offices and warehouses. Even in a time of historically-low unemployment rates, only 22% of adults with autism have jobs—meaning an unemployment rate for them of 78%. I hope that Project Genius, and other companies that use our playbook, can improve on that number.
Puzzles are my profession, and I’d rate solving anything related to autism a 5 out of 5 on the difficulty scale. But like a puzzle, there’s immense satisfaction when you figure out a solution and something clicks into place. We’ve experienced a few satisfying clicks so far, and we’re working on a few more.
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