My 15-year-old son Alex (diagnosed PDD-NOS) goes to a special-needs school where some students are old enough to work. A few years ago Alex’s teacher told me about when she approached a local thrift shop about students volunteering there.
“We don’t hire the handicapped,” the clerk said.
“In the first place,” said Alex’s teacher, “I’m asking about volunteering for no pay. In the second place, we don’t use that term anymore.”
“Well whatever you call them,” the clerk replied, “we don’t hire them.”
Too bad. In supermarkets Alex turns all the cans on the shelf so the labels face straight out. He empties our dishwasher in the morning. He sets holiday dinner tables and leaves the handles of all the coffee cups at precisely the same angle.
“Alex,” I ask as he tucks in the sheets at the foot of his bed, “would you like a job?” I expect him to parrot back, “Like a job?”
“A job to do,” he says, tucking.
Alex has his work cut out for him. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for American adults with disabilities was 13.3% at the beginning of this year, compared with 6.8% for adults without disabilities. According to a study in the September 2013 Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, young adults with an ASD have more trouble transitioning into employment than their peers with different disabilities (www.jaacap.com/article/S0890-8567(13)00377-8/abstract). The study also found that only half (53%) of young adults with an ASD ever work for pay outside their home in the first eight years after high school – the lowest rate among disability groups.
My friend Jennifer tells me her son started as a cart attendant at a local Target; after three years they added “sales floor” to his cart duties. “He also straightens the store, stocking and fronting items,” she emails. Jennifer advises parents seeking employment for kids with ASDs to connect with local stores, making introductions early with businesses that would accept a person with a disability – “really ‘accept,’ not just legally accept,” she says.
Jennifer’s son has also held some “less-than-perfect” jobs before Target, she stresses, “So stay positive and keep pushing.”
Okay. “If Alex worked here,” I tell the lady at the wine store, “he’d have the labels of all the bottles facing the same way in about an hour.” She laughs. I don’t add that I also think he’d dash out the back door of the store long before that hour was up. Though he’d probably stop short of smashing fine Chardonnay on the floor, I bet he would yank himself away from his supervisor and lunge off crying, “Awww, iPad…”
I wish I pushed Alex more. The dishwasher is a dawn routine now, true, yet often simply having him sweep crumbs just slips my mind. He watches too much Elmo on his iPad; too often I let him alone. I’m not together enough to be Alex’s dad, not smart enough for this job.
I look for help on his Individualized Education Program:
- “To prepare for volunteer clerical work at an adult day program, Alex would benefit from developing vocational skills through work-based projects and in-school jobs and having more opportunities to develop initiation skills when speaking to staff and peers.”
- “Working more independently will be addressed during his in-school job making copies for staff independently for 20 minutes.”
- “Alex displays a high interest in going on the computer.” Can’t argue with that (see “Elmo”). His Aunt Julie suggests we open an email account for Alex. Then she could write to him and he could send out resumes.
- “Alex will receive ongoing instruction and opportunities to practice writing personal information on job applications.”
- “Alex will receive instruction and have opportunities in the community to practice using laundry machines and learning how to fold laundry.” Great idea even if he never gets a job.
- “Alex responds very well to verbal praise.” Also great, except:
- “Alex can be distracted from a task easily.”
He could probably scrape by for the next six decades on the compassion or pity of society. I do hope he someday has that spring in the step after a day of good work he enjoys. (Maybe calling up Elmo on an iPad?) Regarding my own outlook, I can’t figure out where work – let alone money – fits into Alex’s universe. Perhaps if we get him to hand enough bills over the counters of Michael’s for little plastic jungle animals, then he’ll understand that sometimes we all spend our days in less-than-perfect ways to earn money for what we want.
What will he be paid? President Obama’s recent hike of the minimum wage includes – after vocalizing by advocacy groups – similarly raising wages (to $10.10/hour) for disabled workers. I didn’t know people like Alex worked for less, but under a government program originated long before we entered World War II, employers could pay certain disabled workers sub-minimum wages. “The Fair Labor Standards Act provides for the employment of certain individuals at wage rates below the statutory minimum,” the statute read, “(including) individuals whose earning or productive capacities are impaired by a physical or mental disability … for the work to be performed. Employment at less than the minimum wage is authorized to prevent curtailment of opportunities for employment” (www.dol.gov/whd/specialemployment).
Most disabled workers who worked for sub-minimum wages under the provision were employed in “segregated, sheltered” workshops. Operators of such workshops claim that including these workers in the president’s wage hike will lead to many disabled people being pushed out of work.
Interesting, and frightful. What other employment-statute landmines wait for my son and people like him? Or will Alex be lucky enough to run into the growing number of employers who even forego interviews and instead give workers a one-week tryout, who sometimes use picture systems in the workplace and who display the patience to tap a mania for routine and superhuman powers of concentration?
Just look at the other night at bedtime when Alex lost that plastic chicken behind the mattress and refused to budge from his bedroom no matter how I insisted that I last saw the chicken out by the couch. “Rooster,” Alex kept saying. “Awww, roo-ster…”
We found the chicken.
I’m not sure Alex will ever hold a job job (of course, I once doubted he’d ride a school bus, too). For him, I think, employment will replace school as a place to go every day, where if he doesn’t show up people will miss him. Will he get such a place? Students with autism receive a lot of support in school years, support that often slams into a mother of a curtailment when they graduate.
“Are you worried what’s going to happen to him when he’s 21?” a school official asked me once.
“No,” I replied, “I’m worried what’s going to happen to him when he’s 40.”
That worry has become a job in itself.
Jeff Stimpson has authored two books: “Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism” and “Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie.” Visit his blog is at http://jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy.