Mills Park Middle School Teacher Nicole Poitras spends her days working with children with autism by keeping them active, engaged and learning.
But when Poitras runs into her students years later, she often finds they are spending most of their time sitting at home. While their peers are in college, the military or holding full-time jobs, adults with autism are left behind.
Employment options are few, and because autism is a spectrum developmental disorder that affects language, social interaction and emotional intelligence, it makes getting and maintaining a job that much harder.
Poitras is working to change that. She’s opened Going Full Circle, a thrift store in Fuquay-Varina that sells clothing, housewares and decor items that will train those 16 and older who have autism with retail job skills.
Trainees will learn about sorting clothes, working with customers, restocking racks, pricing and working a register.
“Sadly there are a lot of misconceptions,” said Poitras, who was named the 2010 Autism Teacher of the Year by the Autism Society of North Carolina. “People see them as lacking in ability. Which is not the case. They are perfectly capable of doing many tasks.”
Poitras’ store opened March 22 and is awaiting new trainees. She is offering the job skills classes for $25 an hour. Proceeds from the store will also go toward funding for families who can’t afford the training fees.
Poitras’ store isn’t the only one in the Triangle aiming to meet the employment needs of adults who have autism.
Extraordinary Ventures in Chapel Hill has about 40 employees with autism or other developmental disorders who work in a laundry service, or have candle making, bus cleaning and maintenance, and events center jobs. Employees can also work in office services, which includes data entry, sorting and shredding.
HandmeUps Thrift in Raleigh provides job training and jobs for adults with autism. But even with these providers, the employment needs are overwhelming.
Understanding the need
There are more than 60,000 people in North Carolina with autism, according to the Autism Society of North Carolina.
About 13,000 of those are school-age children who at some point become employment age, spokesman David Laxton said.
The Autism Society has a JobTIPS group for adults on the autism spectrum seeking to develop work skills. The group meets once a week over a course of 12 weeks. Members also practice interviewing, completing an application, using key phrases and developing a resume.
The society also works with the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services to get people jobs that include computer programming, accounting, food service and cleaning.
The division contracts out with more than 100 vendors to work with clients to develop interviewing skills, coach them through job tasks and work with employers to make any needed modifications, said Kenny Gibbs, chief of employment services.
In 2013, the department received 776 applications from people with a form of autism. About half were from the central region which includes the Triangle. The majority of applicants were between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the division’s data.
Not all of those who apply are determined eligible to receive aid, or decide to continue through the process, Gibbs said.
In total, with some carryover from previous years, the division has 1,820 eligible employment cases for adults with autism. Of those, the division was able to place 203, according to the report.
Gibbs said when a match can be made there are benefits to their clients and employers.
“We try dispelling the myth that adults with disabilities bring a disruption to the workplace or have an inability to do the job,” Gibbs said.
For the division’s clients, jobs open up a whole new world.
“They can do a lot of the things they couldn’t afford to do before,” Gibbs said. “It means integration. In today’s world we are identified by what we do. Versus sitting on the sidelines and waiting on a check, they get out and forge new relationships. They are paying taxes, contributing to society and feeling good about himself (or herself).”