I'm writing this post at the request of a regular reader. As I mentioned in last week's Seven Quick Takes, my autistic son recently started a paying job, which has been a goal for a long time. This post will outline what we have done to get the job, who has helped us (and who has not) and will generally outline what will happen once school is over.
My son is autistic. Compared to some, his disability is not severe. He gets himself up in the morning, prepares and eats his own breakfast (as does everyone else in this house), gets ready for work, drives to work, does his job, drives home, runs errands or does chores, and then participates in his favorite recreational activities. He can communicate with people, make his needs known and follow instructions. He can read, write and do math as well as most high school graduates (and he is a high school graduate who did not need remedial classes when he started at the community college). On the other hand, he is 22 going on 12. He has no long-term goals, he would prefer to stay home and play all day. He has no social skills to speak of and does not present himself well. He has no specific job skills and is not at all interested in going to school to acquire any. He has problems with fine motor skills and overall coordination and strength so most blue-collar jobs are not going to work for him. What to do?
SSI and Ticket to Work: The Social Security Administration runs a program called SSI. Parents of limited means who have handicapped children are able to collect a monthly check to help care for those children. Once the handicapped child turns 18, SSI is available to handicapped individuals who qualify, regardless of family income. This check, which is a little over $700 per month provides the basic support for my son. While it is a nice addition to my family income, it is obviously not enough to allow him to move out and set up housekeeping by himself. It also does nothing to keep him busy all day.
However, Social Security and the state department of rehabilitation team up for a program called Ticket to Work. This program pays employment vendors (some for-profit businesses; some non-profits serving the handicapped) to locate jobs for the handicapped, place clients in those jobs and to support those clients via job coaches to make sure they are able to perform their job functions and otherwise get along in the workplace. The vendor gets paid a certain sum for an initial evaluation, a certain sum when a job is found and the rest of the pot of money after the client has been on the job for six months. If the job doesn't last six months, the vendor must find the client another job at no additional cost. The payments are set up this way to give the vendors incentive to find appropriate jobs and to provide sufficient support as opposed to just finding a job. Unfortunately I think this payment scheme also encourages vendors to not put much effort into finding a job for a difficult-to-place client.
So how did it work for us? Shortly before my son graduated from high school I started calling vendors on the list we had been given. One wanted to meet with my son and me. We met, we talked and the vendor talked about placing my son in a toy store or a video game store. My son was sold, and since I didn't know anything about any of the other vendors, I went ahead and signed up with them. I realized we were looking for a low (probably minimum) wage job, and that it would likely be part-time. I also realized that it was summer and that the job market for that type of job was probably flooded with high school kids, and that if I had a choice to hire a normal high school kid or my son, I'd hire the normal kid. Therefore, I did not get too upset when nothing materialized over the summer. However, we went through the fall with only slight contact from the vendor, and cancelled appointments. Then the state rehabilitation department called, asked if I was happy, and said they hadn't gotten the reports they should have gotten. I said I wasn't happy and she recommended a different vendor, so I picked that one.
He's not ready. When we met with the new vendor, a new evaluation was done. She told me that my son was not ready to get a paying job. He didn't follow directions or stay on task. He didn't relate to other people. I couldn't disagree with what she said, but what to do? She had an answer. She referred me to a program run by a local school for the handicapped (primarily those with cognitive impairments). He would work at a local health club under the supervision of a job coach. Instead of being paid, I would pay the school to make him work and teach him job skills. She also referred me to a state program which would pay for the training program; unfortunately funding for that program was cut off about that time such that people who applied a coupe of months before us were the last ones funded. Luckily, I did not need his Social Security to pay the bills at our house and was able to use that to pay for the training program.
He's still not ready. When my son started the program we were told that they would re-evaluate in three months. When I spoke to the people at the school they were very complimentary and said he had come a long way. When I spoke to the vendor she said she wished they wouldn't tell people that; he wasn't ready, he still had issues. I asked what criteria she was looking for and she said that when he was ready, the healthclub would offer him a job. At that point I began to suspect that she had no intention of beating the bushes to find my son a job; that she intended to wait for him to be offered one. Also several parents of other young autistic adults who had been through that program said their kids were working at that club. While I would have no problem with him working there, I did not necessarily want to wait until they had a position available.
Try again. At that point I decided to switch vendors again. The school running the program said they couldn't take him because it would cause a conflict with the company that sent him over there, but they said they heard ARC was good. ARC said they submitted three applications per month but we never got an interview. They run a landscaping service and needed help with it and put my son on a crew; however that did not work out (and I didn't think it would when it was offered). I found a store with a help-wanted sign, and they handled the application process and helped him with the interview. The manager wanted to hire my son but his superiors said he did not have enough sales to justify the position. Finally they got my son an interview with Lowes.
If at first you don't succeed fire the vendor and hire another. After a year of no action from ARC other than the application I instigated, I called the school running the job training program. I asked if they thought my son was employable in a real job, or whether they thought I needed to change my expectations to sheltered employment (jobs made for the handicapped which pay less than minimum wage and have more supervision and less expectation than a normal job provided by a real business). They said they definitely thought my son was capable of holding down a real job. I talked to them some more about what they would do if he was their client and then decided to switch to them as our vendor (there was no conflict now since I had already fired the vendor who sent us to them).
Success at last. We had just switched vendors when the healthclub offered my son a job. Unfortunately it was at night (he'd get off at 11:00 p.m.) and my son insisted "I sleep at night". A week or so later, he was offered a position at another health club, but it would have only been 6 hours a week. I said "no". A few weeks later, he was offered the position he has, working in food service at the Superdome and Arena. A job coach went with him the first few days and has been slowly fading out. He had a rough start as far as dealing with the other people but that seems to be smoothing over. They like his work, according to the job coach. He won't let me take his picture but he goes to work in black pants, black tshirt, white chef's coat and apron and a black hat.
Money in his pocket. My son says the job is "ok" and he likes having money to spend. SSI lets him keep the first $80/month that he earns. After that, they cut the SSI check by 50 cents for every dollar he earns. Since he has started working, I've given him access to the bank account where his SSI check and his paycheck are deposited. I charge him rent at the beginning of the month and a car payment at the end of the month which clean out the SSI check. He has to buy his own gas, clothes, car repairs, and toys. I'm trying to get him to see the benefits of working without giving him too much money to waste on foolishness.