There are many challenges helping adults with autism join the work force once they haev have aged-out of the school system.
"Aging out is a difficult thing because they've had services in school, then all of a sudden they have no services." Tara Potter is the Director of Trio Employment Network, which is now operating out of the PURE Empowerment center at Marcus Pointe Baptist Church in Pensacola. She is a job coach for adults with autism. "And then they'll find out often times, well really all the time, that the services are very limited [with] the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. There's a grant called Able Trust Grant that is dedicated specifically for supported employment. So they can go to the APD [and] apply with them, [plus] try to get that [grant] which is $5,000 a year. I know that sounds like a lot, but it's really not a lot when you're working with a job coach to try to find something that fits your skills and abilities."
That ABLE Trust money, which is a federal grant, is available to people even if they are on the waiting list for other services and grants. It is allocated for helping adults with disabilities get the skills they need to find a job. At the PURE Empowerment Center, Potter teaches life and social skills as well as job skills. "Because it's not just about getting the job, it's about keeping the job too. So, often times our young men and women with autism just don't have very good grooming. Things like brushing your teeth and keeping your hair clean and keeping your clothes washed and clean. It really is a common problem with young adults with autism, anyone on the spectrum. I have two sons that are on the spectrum, and I can tell you my 28 year old really still struggles with getting as many baths as he should and keeping himself groomed."
Potter says other obstacles to adults on the spectrum keeping a job include a lack of social skills. Many are set in their ways and do not react well to change. Many don’t get past the job interview because they have trouble making eye contact. Once a client is matched with an employer, that’s only the beginning for the job coach. "We have a tool called a 'retention plan'. And the retention plan is designed to really develop a relationship between the employee and the employer." This plan is managed by the job coach and outlines in written terms the job description and the employees responsibilities. If the worker is having trouble, then the coach can go to the employer and employee to exchange ideas on how to fix the problem. "It's a team effort. And when you start things that way the manager [becomes invested in the situation] and he wants that person to succeed."
Tara Potter also reaches out to the community to find employers willing to take on young men and women with autism. "Like a hound dog! [I] find them and explain to them that this is not a 'mercy hire'. This is a person that has the strength that you're looking for."
One client that Potter recalled is a young man she calls John who had the ability to remember numbers. After drifting from job to job he was finally placed at a local department store’s inventory control department. "His keen eye to what's supposed to be on the shelves and his ability to use the equipment , and even if the equipment was down he could remember numbers to do their inventory, he actually saved the company money within the first year he was there."
Many local mom and pop businesses have employed some of Potter’s clients, as well as large regional employers like Navy Federal, the Studer Group, ECUA, Wal Mart and Walgreens. She says focusing on a person’s strengths and not their disabilities, as well as finding the right job coach or other help, is the key to finding the right job.