I began saving work ideas and business models for my son last April, on this blog’s Quirky Works! page. As I described in “A Dream Job,” we’re at the outset of the “transition” process from school to adulthood, and we don’t really know yet what is in store. I wanted to collect examples from other families with kids like mine, to find out how others are finding ways to help their autistic loved ones build employable skills, find job opportunities, and make meaningful work a possibility.
Success stories about autistic employment have been making the rounds on social media lately. You may have seen, for example, Sam, the Starbucks-clerk-turned-YouTube-star aka the “dancing barista” in Toronto. This young man with autism is lucky to do something he loves—preparing coffee in an establishment that allows, and even embraces, his need to move and dance in order to stay focused on his tasks. Sam and his boss appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show recently, and his enthusiasm for his job is contagious.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are quite a few coffee shops and cafés on my Quirky Works! list (our mom-addiction to coffee should be inspiring some future baristas, don’t you think?). I also saw this story about a teacher who established a coffee cart at her school so that her special needs students could practice important job skills by selling coffee and treats around campus. That’s a win-win operation, for sure.
Earlier this week, I watched an interview with a fellow parent who spoke directly to the issues I’m facing when searching for post-school opportunities for my son. Chris Ulmer, of Special Books by Special Kids, is an incredible teacher and advocate who is spreading positive awareness about disability through videos about the students in his class, as well as “road trip” adventures to meet other special needs individuals and families around the country. On his latest road trip, Chris met with Michael Stuart and his young adult son Aaron.
As he describes in this video, when faced with the question of what his son could do after he left school, Michael decided to launch Operation Meaningful Life. He set up a mock restaurant as a training center in his home and works with Aaron on the skills he needs to be employable in the hospitality industry—preparing food, setting tables, prepping banquet rooms and buffet lines. Aaron clearly enjoys learning these tasks.
This dad recognizes, as many of us do, that our kids are happier when they can complete goals and be successful in some way (aren’t we all?). “They want a sense of mission. A sense of purpose,” Michael notes. “They want that opportunity also—to feel important. To feel that they can accomplish something.”
When you visit the businesses listed on Quirky Works!, you’ll see many others like Sam and Aaron: autistic entrepreneurs and employees who take pride in their work and find joy in their ability to make a contribution, earn money, build new skills, belong and be an asset to their communities.
They are couriers and carpenters; gardeners and grounds keepers; chefs and chocolatiers. They wait tables and wash cars; they sell, package, clean, and recycle. They are candle-makers and computer programmers; app developers and artists; bakers and, of course, baristas.
I don’t know yet which type of job my son might enjoy—or how exactly I can help make that happen. Maybe I’ll start with teaching him how to set the coffee pot. A win-win, right?
Please scroll through the newly updated Quirky Works! page. Find an autism business near you and pay them a visit. Or order merchandise through one of their online stores. Buy for yourself, or for a friend (it’s a great way to add a dash of autism awareness to your next gift). Use these ideas as springboard for your own transition plans and dreams for the future. And, most of all, show your support for these innovative parents, creative teachers, and especially the Quirky employees who are creating for themselves productive and fulfilling lives.