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Autism, Special Needs, and the Quest to find a Job

John Elder Robison is an adult with autism, and the parent of an adult son with autism.  He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Department if Health and Human Services.  He serves on numerous public and private boards, and he’s the founder of JE Robison Service of Springfield, MA.  John is also the NY Times bestselling author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby.  He lives in Western Massachusetts. For more about John visit his website.

Many of you know me as a writer, speaker, or advocate for people with autism and neurological differences, but before that, I was a mechanic.  In fact, even will all the other things I do today, I still am.  I don’t fix many cars myself anymore, but I’m here overseeing my shop every day I’m not traveling.  The automobile trade has been good to me.   From a humble beginning in the garage beside my house, Robison Service has evolved into one of the leading import car specialists in New England.  We’ve grown from a twelve by twenty foot stall to a whole complex of buildings; all by providing a service few people choose to offer.

Our business has succeeded through the hard work of many people, and the support of a loyal clientele.  But before we had those things, there was me – an autistic adult who needed a job.

I started this company because I couldn’t fit in at the Big Corporation.   Yet I had skills, and could work on my own.  A drive to succeed and some auto repair skills were enough to start me on the road to success.

Fixing cars and counseling their owners helped me learn the social skills I needed to succeed, given me stability, and a sense of value in the community.  As manufacturing and management jobs have evaporated from the businesses around me, it’s also given me security.  No one will be outsourcing repair of Mom’s BMW, or restoration of Dad’s Jaguar anytime soon.

The same can be said for most of the trades.  Electricians, plumbers, mechanics, HVAC people . . . we do very different work but we have a few things in common:

·      We work with our hands

·      We rely on focus, concentration, and specialized knowledge to succeed

·      Technical skill means more than people skills in most of our jobs

·      Our jobs are local, and they won’t be outsourced to India or China any day soon!

Becoming a skilled tradesman is one way a person like me – from an at-risk background, with some “differences” to set me apart – can find success in this society.  An established tradesman will always have work, often with a better-than-average income for his area. 

I’m always surprised by how few people are aware of this basic truth.  Most people seem to think the work world is divided into two pieces: the so-called white collar jobs, and minimum wage service work.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The fact is, most millionaires in this country are self-employed small business owners.  Many of them made their money in the trades.  Knowing that, I’ve always wished there was a way I could teach practical skills to young people like me.  I get a steady trickle of emails asking that very thing.  This summer, I am pleased to say we are taking some action.

We are opening a trade school in the Robison Service complex.

When we open this fall we will teach basic mechanics, vehicle inspection, detailing, small engine repair and landscaping.  All that will be done right here where I work every day – alongside real professionals practicing the same trades day in and day out.

We are partnering with Northeast Center for Youth and Families, and Tri County Schools of Easthampton.  Students will divide their time between shop classes in our complex and the regular academic program at Tri County’s Easthampton campus.  I will be here as an advisor but the teaching will be done by legitimate special ed professionals, not just outlaws like me!

One of the best features of our program is that students will learn real trades amongst working professionals practicing these same trades right next door.  Our car repair staff will visit for lectures and demonstrations and there will be apprenticeship opportunities galore.  We want to create a real “learning from the old masters” environment, which is how the trades have been passed down for centuries.  At the same time, we will accommodate the special needs of our at-risk student population. 

We hope to introduce some of the new evidence based therapies to help our kids succeed.  As a member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee I am in a position to see the latest developments.

Tri County is a long-established non-profit Massachusetts Chapter 766 approved special education school.  Students in our programs will be referred by state agencies, school districts, and private professionals.  Some of our kids will be on the autism spectrum, but we will also take kids from at-risk home environments and kids with other developmental challenges.

For those of you who want to check us out in person or on Google Earth, the address is 343 Page Boulevard, in Springfield, MA.   The main Tri County campus is in a fine new building at 201 East Street in Easthampton.

I’m very excited by this program; I think there will be a lot of demand.  We’ve already got a number of students from the existing Tri County population, and parents are inquiring about sending kids from surrounding towns.  Some – from farther away - are looking at our NCYF residential options.  If you want to talk about enrolling, call or write:

Jennifer S. Miller, LSWA
(413) 529-7386 (office)
(413) 265-3989 (cell)

Even though the program is run by professionals I will still be in the background, serving as advisor and visionary and counseling the students.   I’m also here to talk to parents and show people around.  We’ll be having our first open house later this summer.

Frankly this whole thing is something of a dream come true.  I can’t wait to see us open the doors, in a few short months.  Do you know someone who wants to be in our first class?

Stay tuned for updates, and think hard about those trades.  Not everyone is cut out for college. I wasn’t. 

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.