Health
7:50 pm
Sat November 10, 2012

Purpose And A Paycheck: Job-Seekers With Autism Reach For Both

Alex Brenner (left), Jordan Howard and Dorian Hinkle relax after their final day working at the Federal Way farmers market for the summer.
Credit KUOW photo/Bryan Buckalew

The first time Rolando Elias came to work at the Federal Way farmers market, Dr. April Walter was nervous.

“That was a big-time risk,” April says. “It could have blown up in my face.” She opened a tent at the market to give young adults with autism a chance to work.

Rolando is 19 years old. His autism symptoms are considered severe. He doesn’t speak, and he’ll run if he gets nervous. The Federal Way farmers market is bordered on two sides by roads with heavy traffic, which raises the question, why take the risk?

“Because it’s important,” April says. “Everyone needs a purpose in life. And especially with the non-verbal kids. They often will never have a purpose. Autism is often individual. People feel isolated. The families feel isolated.” 

April's goal in setting up a vendor’s tent at the farmers market was to take away some of that isolation. 

I never expected him to be part of a group.

Antonio Elias knows that feeling well. He is Rolando’s father and when Rolando was diagnosed, Antonio had no idea what to do.

“I was shaking thinking, ‘my only son has autism.’” Antonio says he wanted to jump off the bridge running over Lake Union.

Of course he didn’t. Instead he calmed himself that day by resolving to do whatever he could to help his son. Now, more than a decade later, Rolando has almost finished high school. He is enrolled at an employment transition center in Federal Way. And as Antonio watches Rolando at the market and thinks back to that first day, he’s surprised by how far they’ve come.

“It makes me feel real proud,” Antonio says. “I never expected him to be like this right now — part of a group, part of a community.”

Still, the farmers market adds up to just three hours, one afternoon a week during the summer. Finding ways to fill time is the tallest hurdle for families that have children with autism leaving school. Rolando’s parents don’t know if he’ll ever be able to live by himself. They do know that one day he’ll probably have to live without them. That means they need to figure out what he can do now while they’re still around. For the Eliases, the farmers market is a start.

The Job Interview: Social Skills Under Scrutiny

The market is also a start for Jordan Howard, although his expectations are different. Jordan is hoping his experience managing the tent will help him get a job. Jordan has Asperger's syndrome, which is a mild form of autism. He’s been practicing his interpersonal skills in mock job interviews.

Jordan has had a lot of trouble with job interviews in the past. He’s not good at judging how people react to him. And he gets really nervous.

“I always think I’m being judged by other people when I’m walking around. But this time I know I’m being judged,” Jordan says. “I don’t know if I’m going to stand up to scrutiny.” In his first mock interview, he didn’t.

When people ask you what's an average day for you, they don't want to know about your Cheerios.

“He wasn’t able to answer the questions in a manner that I felt would be appropriate for a job interview,” Carly Pereira, one of Jordan’s tutors, says. Jordan wasn’t able to name his strengths. He couldn’t describe his personality. And he had trouble knowing what to tell about himself and what to leave out. “When people ask you what’s an average day for you,” Carly says, “they don’t want to know about your Cheerios.”

Jordan did much better in the second interview. He had trouble elaborating at first. And he stapled his resume on the right hand side of the paper instead of the left. But as the interview progressed, he gained confidence. In the first interview, when asked about his ambitions, he said he’d like to be a manager with “subordinates.” This time he changed that to “manager with responsibility.” Also last time, when asked, what irritates you about people, Jordan said, “dealing with people.” He left that out too. Still, at times, it sounded like he was reading a script. He didn't even believe everything he was saying.

Jordan understands the reality: If he’s interviewing for an entry-level customer service job and he says he doesn’t like to work with people, there’s no way he’ll get a job. So he fakes it. “I just have to buckle down and do it." And that's what a lot of people do: say what you need to say to get the job. For Jordan, that job and paycheck is his path to independence.

Jordan’s friend Alex is taking a slightly different route. In April, he applied to the University of Washington. If he got in, he would have to move into his own apartment near campus. I asked him if he was ready to move out of his parent’s house.

“Yes,” Alex said. “Oh God, yes.”

Alex's story continues in KUOW's Coming Of Age With Autism.

Funding for Coming Of Age With Autism was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund.  Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern, the KUOW Board of Directors and Listener Subscribers.