Parkland is a remarkably unremarkable South Florida town. That bland name is perfect. Parkland's per-capita income--just about $45,000--is almost exactly the same as that of the entire United States. The place is all strip malls and subdivisions, pedestrian-free sidewalks, and Bermuda grass creeping across drained marshland. On the city's west side, a 60-year-old levee restrains the Everglades, dividing swamp from suburbia.
Perhaps the most notable thing in Parkland is the remarkably average-looking car wash adjacent to the BJ's Wholesale Club and down the street from Starbucks. Opened in 2013 to clean the community's Camrys and Explorers, it's called Rising Tide. The name alludes to one of its missions: to create jobs for people with autism-spectrum disorders.
Andrew D'Eri has worked at Rising Tide nearly from the start. "I'm saving money for a trip to Orlando and a trip to New York," D'Eri says one afternoon when I stop by. Someone up in the nickel-colored sky seems to be repeatedly wringing out a sponge--a terrible day for washing cars, a great one to talk to staff. But D'Eri's face is all sunshine as he explains to me that "Universal is much better than Disney. It's all those virtual rides and the 3-D rides." An affable 24-year-old who loves Star Trek, he also enjoys "using the iPad to look up words about science in the dictionary." When I ask if he likes his work, he pauses and then answers: "I feel good."
His straightforward enthusiasm recalls one of the most striking quotes in Working--Studs Terkel's seminal 1974 collection of oral histories from dozens of workers in diverse industries--which is from editor Nora Watson: "Most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people."
This is the first job D'Eri has ever had. He owes it entirely to Rising Tide's proprietors--his brother, Tom, and his father, John, a serial entrepreneur and magisterial raconteur. When we first spoke on the phone, John D'Eri responded to my initial question--about Rising Tide's inspirations--with a passionate 47-minute discourse. "Every parent worries about their children and what will become of them once they pass," he said. "As I was starting to review what Andrew's prospects were and what his opportunities would be, I realized he had none. Really, none!"
Neither Tom nor John believed that Andrew's need for a job justified a business's existence. Rising Tide had to be "more than for Andrew," John says. It had to be "a business that could tow as many along as possible. And it's not a charity. It has to be a business. The business has to stand on its own."
The D'Eris belong to a cohort of entrepreneurs who believe they may be able to address a largely unnoticed crisis: burgeoning unemployment among the fast-growing autistic-adult population. The answer isn't love--it can't be, because not everybody has an Andrew as touchstone or inspiration. Rather, the suggested solution is profit. "Hopefully our success will spark the broader business community to consider employing people with disabilities as a competitive advantage," says Tom D'Eri. "This just makes business sense."
People in the autism world often say, "When you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." It's a slightly defensive way of articulating an important truth: Autism isn't monolithic.
An early cultural encounter with autism, Rain Man, featured Raymond Babbitt, Dustin Hoffman's Oscar- winning portrayal of a human super-calculator. This image of the autistic man as math and tech whiz--and in pop culture, it's almost always a man--has been reinforced by more recent depictions of people with autism-spectrum disorders. There's Christopher Boone, the winsome protagonist in the acclaimed stage adaptation of the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. There's Spencer Reid, the genius autodidact-turned-investigator played by Matthew Gray Gubler on CBS's Criminal Minds. And there's HBO's Silicon Valley, which one of its stars, T.J. Miller, described to Mashable as "Asperger's Entourage."
The prevalence of such characters reflects the prevalence of people with autism-spectrum disorders in broader society: They're there. We know more and more of them, and often we hold them in great affection. We understand them better than we used to, though we still don't fully get how their brains work. (See sidebar, page 39.) Nor have we figured out how to integrate them into our workplaces and economy.
Every year, at least 50,000 individuals with autism will enter adulthood, according to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. The condition's manifestations vary as widely as human personality, hence the umbrella term autism- spectrum disorder. People with Asperger syndrome, the mildest form, may show few perceptible symptoms beyond slight social awkwardness, while those at the other end of the spectrum may have no verbal skills, severe sensory sensitivity, and tendencies toward self-injurious behavior. The professional prospects of this latter group are grim. Ninety percent of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed, a rate unlikely to improve as the autistic-adult population grows. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 of every 150 children had an autism-spectrum disorder in 2000; the latest rate is 1 in 68, a rise that cannot be explained by better diagnosis alone.
No census of autistic adults has been done in the U.S., though the best guesstimates suggest that there are more than three million. Health and social services for adults on the spectrum cost taxpayers nearly $200 billion a year. That figure could double by 2025. Government agencies and nonprofits working with the autistic population used to focus almost exclusively on kids and teens. That has changed over the past decade, "as that most recent, largest wave of children aged out of school," says David Kearon, the director of adult services at Autism Speaks. "Everything that you and I take for granted as part of our adult life comes as a challenge to many families--housing, support for things they need to live independently, employment."
That last challenge--employment--is most likely to be met by America's entrepreneurs. A massive tech corporation may hire the highest-functioning autistic people, but it's not yet evident that a small program in a big company can move the financial needle enough to make a strong business case beyond a few sweet paragraphs in a social-responsibility report. The businesses in this story have already intuited that widespread change will come not from the pity that prompts a person to buy an autistic man's mousetrap or even from empathy for a cause.
"Small business is the place where we can be accommodating," says John Elder Robison, who sits on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, which advises the federal government on autism-related research. He has self-accommodated at his company, JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts, which repairs luxury cars. "Because I'm autistic, I'm compelled to know everything about the minutiae of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars," he says. "People send us service work from all over the country because we know a lot about them, and the reason we know a lot about them is that I'm autistic and it's an autistic special interest of mine. It's a significant competitive advantage."
Robison believes small businesses like his hold keys to the future for thousands of people on the spectrum, including the interns who pass through his shop (they're paid $10 to $12 an hour) and his son, who works there too. "It's the little businesses," he says, "that have the flexibility to see the opportunity in people who are different." You'll find such businesses all across North America. Inc. asked five to share their experiences employing autistic people and the lessons they've learned on the journey.
Lesson 1: Know whom you're hiring
Meticulon, Calgary, Alberta
Hiring, as it's usually done, has many shortcomings. It favors those with strong personal networks, extroverts, and the well spoken. But decades of research have shown that standard interviews are poor predictors of success. The best? Work samples and trial runs.
Canadian entrepreneur Garth Johnson, who helped start iStockphoto, realized that typical hiring procedures put autistic job seekers at a particular disadvantage. So, inspired partly by templates from the Belgian autism-employment nonprofit Passwerk, he has created a new one at Meticulon, the social enterprise he founded in 2013 to train and employ people on the spectrum in software testing, database management, and online quality control.
At Meticulon, hiring begins with, yes, a 90-minute interview with the company's chief employment officer. But the point is really to introduce the rest of the process. Next comes a day of testing--six computerized quizzes gauging everything from logic to visual language. "If they get at least average--the test is scored against the neurotypical populace, and they usually score one standard deviation above the norm--we continue them onto the three-week assessment process," says Johnson.
That assessment puts interviewees through 50 different exercises. One is an 11"x17" Where's Waldo? puzzle; they must find Waldo as well as binoculars, a dog's tail, and numerous other objects. A mock menu-building task requires them to account for people's allergies (information management); another has them navigate a supermarket (socialization). Applicants are teamed and then asked to follow written instructions on how to build a circuit. "It has nothing to do with the job they're going to do, but it tells us something about eye-hand coordination and the ability to respond to instructions," Johnson explains. No team member is given enough tools to complete the circuit alone. "We want to see how they interact and cooperate."
The scores are aggregated on a grid, which the assessors then use to create what Johnson calls "a mind map of technical and personal skills." The map elucidates a potential hire's strengths and weaknesses, and the results are given to each applicant, including "some who decide they don't like testing--they have the mind map to take away."
Mackenzie Whitney, a self- described "high-functioning autistic," completed the process in mid-2014. He learned "that, through frustration, I was OK with quitting a task if it was too much for me," he says. "I didn't know that about myself." He also surprised himself with his affinity for leadership. "I was able to manage different tasks for people," he says. "Not in a way as to force it upon them--it was more opening it up as a suggestion to them and then allowing for conversation to happen."
In November, Whitney began working at Palantir Solutions, a company that builds software for oil and gas companies. He performs black-box testing on Palantir's software to ensure that it's client-friendly and glitch-free.
Lesson 2: Create a supportive structure
Rising Tide Car Wash, Parkland, Florida
While a company like Meticulon can help those who fit the stereotype of the autistic savant--the Rain Men and the denizens of Silicon Valley--businesses like Rising Tide reach those with greater cognitive challenges. And at a time when many workplaces are being praised for flexibility, Tom and John D'Eri have built a countercultural model that relies on rigidity.
Rising Tide's process acknowledges the typical preference of those on the autism spectrum for structure. The D'Eris began with a step-by-step deconstruction of the car-washing process into dozens of discrete actions, starting from the moment a customer pulls onto the premises in a dirty car. They quickly decided to automate the first key moment: sales. Customers at Rising Tide stop at a touchscreen kiosk, where they can choose a basic exterior wash ($5 and up), a hot wax ($15), or a full detail ($35 and up). "For most people with autism," Tom explains, "communication is not going to be a strength."
After a vehicle travels through the automatic-wash tunnel, it pulls into a bay where the employees take over from the machines. A basic wash at Rising Tide requires 39 steps on the passenger's side, and 46 on the driver's side, including vacuuming the floor mats, wiping the doorjambs, and cleaning the insides of the windows. A supervisor follows with a 19-step quality-control check.
The D'Eris departed from usual thinking about autistic employees with one significant innovation: They divided the car, assigning each half to a member of a two-person team. This experiment went against the advice of autism experts they consulted. "The conventional knowledge," Tom says, "is that people with autism don't work well with other individuals."
That conventional knowledge has so far proved wrong at Rising Tide. Once Tom paired employees, the average time to finish one car dropped nearly 40 percent--a bit more if they put the stronger team member on the more-complicated driver's side. "He's setting the pace for the employee on the passenger's side," Tom explains. "The driver's-side person can pull the other person along."
The structure has enabled Rising Tide "to employ folks who might take a little more time to learn the process and might be more cognitively impaired," Tom says. "A lot of our guys go from only being able to work on the passenger's side and being pretty unengaged to moving to the driver's side." Within a year of opening, Rising Tide was doing more than 10,000 cars a month, and seven autistic workers now serve as team leaders or supervisors. About 70 cars are washed per hour on a peak day, though at a push, the tally can be as high as 80 or 85. The staff tries to get full-service customers in and out in less than half an hour--more than adequate "for a vehicle that's not super dirty," Tom says. He nods at a Ford Explorer (Eddie Bauer edition) that's being serviced. "If it's trashed like this one was, you're looking at something closer to an hour," he says. "But you start getting customer complaints when you're over half an hour."
The D'Eris have been criticized, they say, by those who believe that autistic people should not be segregated for work--a model known as an "enclave." "We got called some pretty nasty names," John says. Tom points out that, given that the spectrum's diversity is becoming recognized, the diversity of employment should be, too. No job is for everyone. "This is not a silver bullet," he says. "This style of employment could be a great solution for 30 to 50 percent of people."
Matt Keller, 22, who has been finishing the passenger's side of a car as Tom and I talk, pipes up during a lull in our conversation. "I love you guys," he says to Tom. "I love what you do."
"This was my last stop," Keller tells me. From childhood, he'd been bullied; "sixth grade was the worst--I don't really like to think about sixth grade." After high school, he couldn't even find a supermarket that would hire him as a bag boy. "When I got this job, I felt so happy," he says. "They tell me I'm very close to being a manager. I do so much stuff here, I don't think they would ever fire me. I am always here to help."
Lesson 3: Autism is not your product
Lee & Marie's Cakery, Miami Beach, Florida
"What is this neighborhood?" Andy Travaglia asks as we sit at a sidewalk table outside her Miami Beach café, Lee & Marie's Cakery. She waves a hand at the condo towers rising across the street as her white bichon frisé paces at her feet. "It's Ferraris, girls with big boobs, and old men. So where's the homemade?"
Travaglia was inspired to start the café to employ people on the spectrum after autism was diagnosed in a close friend's son. But shortly before opening, she had an epiphany: The business model has to come first. She estimates that half her customers never notice the giant window on which she has scrawled her mission. More important: "The cheesecake." (Her ex-husband's mom's recipe.) "And the German chocolate cake." (Her grandma's.) "I can't succeed," she says, "if I sacrifice quality."
Indeed, on Yelp, they comment on the pastries ("I recommend the chocolate croissant and almond croissant. Cinnamon donut was ok"), the service, and the drinks. Only a minority mention the social mission--and the strong reviews reflect the store's success. Between the café and her production kitchen a few miles away, Travaglia has had 12 on-the- spectrum employees. She supplies cakes to a few hotels and restaurants.
Travaglia believes that her business, which is breaking even, could be a model. So she applied to the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. She thought her interview was a disaster. The Goldman guy "had this foul expression on his face, and I knew I didn't get it." Three days later, he called to say, "We want you! We believe in you! We have such high hopes for you!"
She and her Goldman mentor are now refining a growth plan, focused on expanding her underbaked wholesale business. When I ask what advice she has for others who want to start businesses to help those on the spectrum, she's blunt: "Autism is not a business model. The business has to be the business. I can't employ anyone if I don't have a fucking great product."
Lesson 4: Keep your standards high
C.F. Martin & Company, Nazareth, Pennsylvania
If you were in the market for a new Martin D-35, one of Johnny Cash's favorite guitars, or an 000-18, preferred by Thom Yorke, you might end up with an instrument that bears the fingerprints of Ernie Stavrovsky. "I work on the bridge pins, inserting the pearl, sanding, polishing them to make them nice and beautiful," says Stavrovsky, 21. "I cut fret wire. I match ribbons." He also glues side dots onto the fingerboard. And he installs RFID tags to track instruments through the manufacturing process. "I'm like a jack-of-all-trades in that place."
Stavrovsky is a beneficiary of a two-decade partnership between Martin and Via of the Lehigh Valley, a nonprofit serving people with disabilities. In the late 1990s, Via approached the guitar company with a proposal: If Via provided coaching and facilitation, would Martin consider hiring folks on the autism spectrum? "Absolutely, we wanted to provide those opportunities," says Deb Karlowitch, Martin's VP of human resources. "It's just the right thing to do."
That Stavrovsky is employed in a sometimes-noisy factory is a marvel to his parents, Ernest Sr., who works at a sewage-treatment plant, and Nicolette, a secretary at Lafayette College. They recall that, as with many other autistic children, sounds could trigger meltdowns for Ernie Jr., who got his diagnosis at age 3. "The noise of a bus backing up. Those cards you buy and when you open them up, they play music," Nicolette says. Today, he works amid whirring saws and buzzing sanders. He actually started in the sanding department, but that didn't work out so well. "I had a hard time trying to sand it off perfectly," he says with a sigh. "And sanding on the side--it gave me a tough time too." Eventually, he discovered the binding department needed help, and he has been there for the past three years, floating into different areas when they need an extra hand.
Quality is paramount--it's not like you can ship an instrument out with a disclaimer that it was made by someone with a disability. It turns out Stavrovsky brings strengths here, too. Justin Tresolini, his state-funded job coach and coordinator, says that Stavrovsky's attention to detail has made him a standout employee. Take those RFID tracking tags, which live shrink-wrapped in plastic sheaves that are temporarily attached to the half-built guitars. "The bar code has to be legible," Tresolini says. "But with other folks, after the plastic shrunk, you couldn't read the bar code. Ernie does this better than anyone."
One of the most painstaking details Stavrovsky is often responsible for is the gluing of a thin ribbon of cedar to the edges where the guitar's top and bottom meet the sides. The first model he was given, a Cutaway, has a dramatic extra bend that makes the gluing of the cedar much more difficult. He did it perfectly.
Lesson 5: Shape the job to the employee, not the employee to the job
Words Bookstore, Maplewood, New Jersey
Barbara Siegel has always built fortresses from books. Growing up, she was bullied. She found sanctuary in her high school library. The librarian, Siegel says, "taught me how to order books, how to run the circulation desk, how to classify the books."
The postgraduation world had none of the Dewey decimal system's neatness. Despite having a master's in urban studies, Siegel drifted from job to job. Her longest stint, working as a nanny for a particularly empathetic family, lasted 10 years, "until the children had the audacity to grow up." She then worked as a nursery school teacher (fired), a substitute teacher (quit), an administrative assistant (fired), and a sales associate at Fortunoff--"in scatter rugs, and then in the bath department" (fired).
She couldn't understand her inability to keep a job until, in her early 50s, she learned she had Asperger and obsessive-compulsive disorder--an event akin to finding the right shelf for a wayward book. "Think of your brain as a computer," says Siegel, who's 62. "My wires aren't connected right. So I have to learn a way around that."
Now, one to three days a week, Siegel can be found at Words Bookstore. Since her parents died two years ago--she lives in a group home--Words has been "everything. Absolutely everything." She owes her employment to Jonah Zimiles, who bought the shop in 2008. Zimiles, whose son has autism, has aggressively sought to "job craft," matching tasks to staff strengths rather than forcing employees into preset job descriptions. "It's judging likes and dislikes, and pushing assignments into people's sweet spots," he explains.
Siegel is developing her knowledge of the children's literature section, channeling her love for list making. "I'm in the process of making a bibliography of pre-K and fictional books about animals--Peppa Pig, Harry the Dirty Dog," she says. "Here, I can listen and file things in my head and grow."
Scott Standifer, who studies autism employment, calls autism a "template disability"; companies that create ways to integrate people with autism will find that those strategies--and the open spirit underpinning them--can also benefit workers with other disabilities.
Zimiles goes further: He has realized that, while he intended job crafting to benefit his autistic interns and staff, it has vastly improved morale for the rest of his employees, too. "In small businesses, there's often a challenge in attracting and nurturing top talent, especially in an industry, like this one, with low pay," he says. "Obviously, you can't think, ‘I only do whatever I feel like.' But we do try to do an informal assessment with everyone now: What do they like to do? And what not?"
One of his neurotypical workers most affected by job crafting had no experience with autism before she started at Words. A preternaturally patient part-timer named Lisa Matalon, she had her job carved to allow her to spend most of her hours working with on-the-spectrum trainees. "When I first started working here, I thought, ‘Ugh, I'm just going to be shelving books,'" she says. "I just fell into working with these guys, and I love it. It gives meaning." Zimiles has given her the title of autism vocational-training coordinator. "What I have learned is that pretty much everyone has a touch of something," Matalon says. "When you start thinking about your co-workers, you realize that everyone has their own special quirks."
Work frames modern American life. It defines our days--when we sleep, when we rise, when we eat. It often accompanies us on vacation--and dictates if we can even afford to go on vacation. It shapes our moods, our identities. This view of work represents a tremendous shift. In ancient times, work was seen as a necessary evil--Aristotle saw it as a precondition for leisure--and even as a consequence of evil: Judeo-Christian tradition views toil as punishment for Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden. But over the centuries, perspectives on work changed, and today, lacking a "respectable" job can come with costs far beyond the financial. "A job in many ways is a sign of one's identity in life," says Gregg Ireland, who co-founded Extraordinary Ventures, a collection of six North Carolina microbusinesses focused on hiring people on the spectrum. Ireland's son, Vinnie, "is not high-functioning. He has very little verbal--only if he really wants something, and then it's usually one word," Ireland says. "But he gets if he's contributing versus sitting on the couch. He gets that when he is delivering bags of laundry, that is an important thing to do. The sense of self-worth--that really matters."
You understand just how much when you talk to employees and learn that they have something they lacked before: a sense of possibility. Siegel says working at Words has facilitated emotional healing. "I haven't felt so much security since high school, when I was in the library," she says.
A job, of course, is no panacea. The newly employed can meet unexpected challenges. One autistic worker I met told me he's saving money to get out of his parents' house. The problem: Nobody else in his household has a regular paycheck--when I ask what his dad does, he replied, "He sits in the house"--so his mother requisitions his. He keeps only his tips. When I ask how the financial arrangement makes him feel, he misunderstands me. "How does it make her feel? Good." I clarified my question. "Not so good."
During my visit to Rising Tide, Tom D'Eri tells me that, while he's especially glad to employ people from poorer backgrounds, he hasn't figured out how to address such situations. "You can understand it--they've been seen as burdens all their lives," he says. "And suddenly they're not."
Still, the D'Eris feel that what they and other employers are learning by doing could dramatically boost the employment prospects of hundreds, if not thousands, of people on the spectrum. John envisions an entire chain of Rising Tide Car Washes: "I want to replicate." And Tom believes the knowledge base they're building "can be extended to any production-oriented service business. Fast food is a great example, but it could apply to any business that can be structured."
A second Rising Tide might open next year, four miles south of the first location, though much has to happen first. (Construction, for instance.)
Just the thought of it seems to make Tom antsy. "Do you need anything else?" he asks, not unkindly. "If not, I should probably go."
The sky has lightened. There are still more cars to be washed. There's still much work to be done.
The Spectrum of Debate
The precise mechanisms behind autism-spectrum disorders still aren't well understood. But advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging have allowed researchers to show distinctive patterns in the brains of people on the autism-Asperger spectrum that may explain their typical social and vocational struggles. Some studies have found abnormalities in the cortex--a communication center--in many autistic children. Others have shown that the amygdala, which processes emotion, registers atypical activity in the brains of most autistic adults.
The murkiness of the science is one reason why there's still fierce debate about whether autism should be celebrated or perhaps cured. (One young man who says he "recovered" after intense therapy advised that I neither name him nor mention the word cure, even though that's what he uses.) And one challenge is to translate the existing research into useful practice, especially in the workplace. Ought there to be workplaces where the majority of employees are on the spectrum, perhaps to create a friendlier environment, or is integrating them into the broader work force better? These are highly divisive questions.
In any workplace, says renowned animal-sciences expert Temple Grandin, who is autistic, "it's important to identify some specific accommodation you need," whether that's a quiet room or clearer instructions. One thing on everyone's wish list: a shift in thinking about the capabilities of those with autism. "There are skills and talents and passion and heart there. You just have to look for them," says Kathryn Nordberg, who started her collection of small businesses, including an equestrian center near Minneapolis, to help young autistic people like her son Erik, 23. "We as a society have to broaden our definition of ‘normal.'"