Beating the Odds: Local Adults with Autism Thrive in Jobs, College
Jason Jones likes his job for the same reason everyone else does — the pay in his pocket and the satisfaction of work well done.
Jones, 47, is part of a cleaning crew that keeps Barksdale Air Force Base spic and span. He started his job seven years ago through the Arc of Caddo-Bossier’s Frost Industries as one of the steps to help him become more independent in spite of autism.
“I didn’t like it at the workshop,” Jones said, referring to the Arc’s training program for people with disabilities. “I wanted a job where I could make money.”
Significantly fewer people with disabilities work than people without disabilities, and that’s especially true for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), according to a U.S. Department of Education study. The study found that only one in three young adults with an autism spectrum disorder worked for pay compared to more than half of all people — the second-lowest work rate of all disability types included in the long-term study.
Older teens and young adults tend to have jobs when they leave high school, but they have trouble retaining them as they get older, the study found. When they weren’t working, they were actively seeking work at lower rates than other people, in part because of low expectations about what they could do.
Felton Parker is beating those odds.
Parker, 33, has worked at McAllister’s Deli in Shreveport for more than eight years and has a cheerful greeting for every customer. He also takes college classes.
“I’ve been in and out of college for 15 years,” he said, explaining that he takes only one or two courses a semester to make sure he gets good grades.
Parker said he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age two and started receiving special education services and speech therapy soon after. He’s overcome challenges linked to autism but still struggles with some areas of his life.
“It’s been difficult for me to have friends,” he said.
Parker has no trouble holding down a job and being independent, but for others — like Jones — supported employment provides long-term work stability.
Jones is among about 200 people working through Frost Industries, the Arc of Caddo-Bossier’s employment division. He and other employees work alongside people without disabilities for on-the-job coaching and receive support from Arc staffers.
Jones’s mother, Jane Jones, turned to the Arc of Caddo-Bossier for information and services as she got older and realized she wouldn’t be able to always care for her son.
Besides working through the Arc’s employment program, Jason Jones lives in supported housing that allows him to be as self-sufficient as possible. He visits his mother and father most weekends and holidays unless he’s busy with friends or Special Olympics. His mother has seen a change for the better since he moved out of her home.
“Since he has been over here, he has absolutely bloomed,” Jane Jones said.
He’s come a long way from the child who was trapped in his mind, unable to communicate.
Jane Jones read to him every day. She taught him about everyday family life with a dollhouse, doll furniture and gurines. She knew he was learning — and then came a breakthrough.
“One day I gave him his favorite book, and he said, ‘A is for apple.’ It was the first time he talked. He was six. I’m sitting there with tears coming down,” Jane Jones said.
Now her son chats easily about his interests, among them NASCAR and country music. Like any other working man, he looks forward to the weekends.
“I’m going to the Texas Motor Speedway for a whole weekend in April,” Jason said. “Jimmie Johnson is my favorite driver.”
Trent Robichaux, 19, prefers the hum of computers to the roar of cars. He’s starting to explore independence in college and is thinking about getting a part-time job, even though his autism spectrum disorder can make trying new experiences challenging.
His parents have been with him every step of the way. They still offer advice but remind him often that he has to be an advocate for himself now that he’s in college and considered an adult in the eyes of the law.
“There’s a little bit more preparation to making sure this child can survive without you. It takes more for this kid to navigate the world,” said his mother Lela Robichaux.
She’s fought for services since he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age five but also pushed him to be independent.
“I don’t see it as a limiting factor,” Trent said. “People ask, ‘Do you feel different?’ I don’t know. I don’t have anything to compare it to.”
Lela Robichaux became an advocate for Trent and used what she learned to help other families facing autism spectrum disorder. She also became involved in Families Helping Families of Northwest Louisiana, a nonprofit advocacy and support organization for people with all types of disabilities. The organization hosts Hanging with Friends, a support that offers social opportunities for individuals on the spectrum who are 18 and older and can advocate for themselves. Members get together for outings to movies, museums and other entertainment venues.
Developing and maintaining friendships and social relationships can be challenging for people on the autism spectrum, and in fact, a lack of relationships with peers is one of the early signs of autism.
Support groups like Hanging with Friends let people with autism spectrum disorders practice picking up on body language and the nuances of communication so that socializing becomes more rewarding.
Trent wouldn’t interact much with others when he was a child, but he now has a couple of close friends and is working to make others.
“My social skills have been getting better,” Trent said.
Families Helping Families also hosts the C.A.R.E.S. (Commitment to Autism Research Education and Support) group, a general-membership group for individuals supporting someone on the autism spectrum and people on the spectrum who are self-advocates.
April is National Autism Awareness Month. One in 68 children born in the U.S. has autism spectrum disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that’s nearly double the previous estimate of how many children were on the spectrum. The CDC continues to track autism spectrum diagnoses, with researchers looking at children’s health and special education records.
The CDC estimates that most children with ASD are identified and start receiving services by the time they are eight. Children don’t outgrow autism, according to the U.S. Autism Society, but early identification and treatment can help youngsters overcome some of the challenges of ASD and become more independent.
“When we were told at the very beginning that Trent had a development disorder….you have your kids and you have all these dreams for your kids, and it’s like that all went away in a few minutes, and now your future is really uncertain,” Lela Robichaux said. “Trent proves me wrong at every turn, and I hope he does that for the rest of his life.”
However, children and adults with autism sometimes require lifetime support and services — and it comes with a price tag. In 2014, researchers estimated the lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism could range from $1.4 million to $2.4 million, depending on the severity of the child’s disability.