Making a Positive Difference:
Employers Who Hire Adults with Autism
By Melissa Bryant
You may have heard the alarming statistic: An estimated 1 in 88 chidren are diagnosed with autism in the United States. But what you may not have heard is that nearly 90 percent of adults with autism are unemployed – and 500,000 more adults on the spectrum will enter the workforce in the next decade. Fortunately, some savvy employers in South Florida are making a positive difference. Businesses like Lee & Marie’s Cakery in South Beach and Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland have hired adults with autism – an endeavor that improves not only their businesss, but also the lives of some very exceptional people in our community.
Lee & Marie’s Cakery – Miami Beach
Andrea Travaglia, founder and CEO at Lee & Marie’s Cakery, witnessed the obstacles that her best friend’s son, Ted, faced when he was diagnosed 20 years ago with autism. As Ted grew older, his challenges evolved into adult issues — finding employment, gaining independence and sustaining his living. “People on the spectrum of autism don’t currently have a lot of opportunities,” Andrea said. “They get aged out of the system at 21. It made me realize that at some point I wanted to employ people like Ted.”
Lee & Marie’s employs five adults on the spectrum working in sales and the retail and production kitchen. To train them, Lee & Marie’s utilizes technology and visual learning tools such as iPads — aids tailored for autistic employees. Lee & Marie’s collaborates with The University of Miami
Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, which partners with the Easter Seals for guidance and training support. Many employers, unaware of these resources, tend to put people on the spectrum in a figurative box because they presume an autistic person may not be emotionally or
intelligently suited for a position within their company. Lee & Marie’s Cakery is proving that theory wrong.
Two employees at the cakery who shatter this common misconception are Lazarro Quintane and Marc William Pulver. Lazarro is the Executive Assistant. His job is to ensure projects run smoothly. He checks inventory and makes sure all tables are waited on as quickly as possible — even if it means rolling up his collared dress shirt sleeves and performing the duty himself.
“We autistic people wish to work in the most dignified way possible, to work with honor, to work with pride, to work with our heads held high, and to carry on like every normal law-abiding citizen would,” Lazarro said. His colleague Marc similarly enjoys the sense of responsibility that working at the cakery gives him. Marc’s daily tasks include stocking, organizing, running the register, making deliveries and serving customers — an area in which he excels. In 2010 he wrote a memoir, Living Life with Autism: The World Through My Eyes. In the book, he describes how he utilizes his exceptional memory at work, an attribute Marc’s parents could see in him from a young age… and one that prevented them from institutionalizing him despite a doctor’s recommendation.
“My customers feel honored when they get to hear the stories of Marc and Laz because it makes them look at their own life and say ‘wow, I’m very blessed and am now able to meet somebody that I would never have met.’ It’s very rewarding for all of us,” said Andrea.
Rising Tide Car Wash — Parkland
At Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, father-and-son team John and Thomas D’Eri had a personal interest in their venture. John’s son and Thomas’ brother, Andrew, has autism and his reality of achieving gainful employment was virtually zero. As a member of the business community, John D’Eri wanted to create a business where he could employ not only his son, but also other adults with similar conditions. The family duo created a car wash with a business model designed to match tasks with the sensitivities and abilities of the employees.
Rising Tide implements a 1-2 week training course where potential employees are shown a 42-step process of how a car wash operates. Employees on the spectrum work in every aspect of the job — a component John says helps build community. “The task of training is integral to our approach,” John said. “Our approach is one of a structured work environment. People with autism enjoy structure, and the car wash’s aspect of repetitive tasks gives them comfort and confidence in their ability — producing a quality product that is consistent.”
Rising Tide Car Wash is the largest single store retail employer of individuals with autism in the area — yet their competitive advantage comes more from their knowledge of the disorder. Thomas said the problem with the way autistic people are treated comes from a distorted perception. “It’s not so much a capability perspective, it’s a perception and communication error,” Thomas said. “What we’re trying to do is change that perception by producing a product that is very tangible. People with autism can do a great job. They can be the best employees.”
The search for autism’s cause, prevention, treatment and cure is ongoing. However we as a society can make a push to become more conscious, educated and proactive in our personal efforts to work with rather than against the disorder.
Lee & Marie’s Cakery is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. 40 S. Pointe Dr., Miami Beach, FL 33139. Rising Tide Car Wash is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. 7201 N. State Rd. 7, Parkland, FL 33067.