It is high school graduation season and most young adults are preparing for life in college or in the workplace. Landing a job in this economy continues to be hard for millions of people. But what if you have autism?
There’s a community in Chapel Hill that has come up with several small business models that ease young people with autism into the adult world of work and self-sufficiency.
If you talk to a parent who has a young child with autism, the conversation will eventually lead to “The Cliff.”
Lori Ireland and several of her friends are real familiar with “The Cliff.”
"As they aged, we saw the handwriting on the wall, so to speak, which is kind of referred to as the cliff," said Lori Ireland. "And the level of services really fall off."
“The Cliff” becomes really visible when a young person with Autism Spectrum Disorder reaches his or her early 20s and is no longer able to attend high school.
Laura Klinger is a leading autism researcher at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. She also is director of the university’s autism program called TEACCH, Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication related handicapped Children.
“After graduation, about 35-percent of people with autism sit home and do nothing, not college, not employment, not vocational training," said Klinger. "They sit home and do nothing and that leads to a real sense of depression”
That’s why the Ireland Family, friends and supporters decided to find jobs for their autistic children, even if they had to create the jobs themselves.
“By the way, we measure ourselves a little differently. For us, if we give someone a meaningful hour of employment, that’s our goal,” said Gregg Ireland.
So the business model they came up with is EV, for Extraordinary Ventures, based in Chapel Hill. It is home to several small businesses, including a bus cleaning business, an office solutions and packaging business and a successful laundry service.
Patrick Eden is 22 -years-old. He’s worked for EV Laundry for more than a year. Eden is very particular about how he sorts, washes and folds the clothes they collect.
“I like the people and I like giving quality work," said Eden.
And it’s that quality work that has quickly moved Eden up the ranks to assistant manager.
Tom Kuell is Director of Operations at EV.
“The success that Extraordinary Ventures has had, the success that EV Laundry has had is because of Patrick, and because of guys like Patrick that are just blossoming when given the opportunity," said Kuell.
A growing number of small businesses are employing workers with autism. A conference earlier this year in Chapel Hill featured family businesses like Poppin’ Joe’s Gourmet Kettle Korn in Louisburg, Kansas and Arthur and Friends, a greenhouse operation business in Newton, New Jersey.
Thomas D’Eri and his family opened Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, Fla. to provide meaningful work for his autistic brother.
“When car washes are run really well, they are very structured, they're very routinized. Lots of really well-defined processes," said D'Eri. "And those are situations that people with Autism really excel in. Something that is structured, that's concrete. And cleaning cars is pretty concrete."
Experts studying autism say keep the jobs coming. That’s because in the U.S., about 50,000 kids on the autism spectrum turn 18 every year.