PARKLAND, FL–The stereotypical picture of autism is a complicated one: A child struggling; parents desperately searching for help; families doing their best to cope; and stoic, protective siblings disappearing into the background.
That dynamic proved true for the D’Eri family. As a child, Andrew D’Eri, born in 1990, had mild cognitive issues, was bothered by loud noises, sometimes scratched himself and made echolalic repetitions, memorized dialogue from movies and repeated it constantly, and usually only wanted to eat chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers (hold the veggies). His father, John, a busy entrepreneur, despaired over what would happen to Andrew once he and his wife, Donna, were no longer able to care for him. John buried himself in his work while Donna devoted her waking hours to caring for Andrew. His eighteen-months’-older brother Tom, seeing the strain caring for Andrew had on his parents—and caused between them—did his best not to cause trouble.
“It wasn’t the same type of relationship you’d have with a neuro-typical sibling,” Tom says. “We didn’t fight, but we didn’t have a close relationship like most siblings close in age—they share toys. They talk about girls. They play catch. We didn’t do that.”
As the brothers grew older, Tom went to college at Bentley University and Andrew stayed at home. As with many young adults with autism, it was assumed Andrew wouldn’t get the chance to hold down his own job or have the chance to thrive in adulthood, despite years of careful preparation by his teachers and the devoted work of his mother. Unemployment rates for people with autism range from 66 percent to as high as 85 percent, according to various estimates. Tom assumed that taking care of Andrew would eventually become his responsibility.
But he also wanted a lot more for his brother. In 2011, after earning a degree in economics and finance, Tom and his father began researching what sort of business model could provide security for Andrew and others like him–companies like dry cleaners and delis that exist nearly everywhere and could place people with autism in direct relationship with those in their communities. “We wanted to build something that could be successful over a long period of time, and create a community within itself for all the people affected by autism that we’d employ,” says Tom.
They also came to better understand the complexities of unemployment for people with autism. “These rates have nothing to do with capability, but with how we look at autism,” Tom explains. “We look at it as a disability that requires sympathy, instead of a diversity that can be valuable in the workplace.”
The D’Eris spoke with others who’d created jobs for people with autism and found that businesses structured in a deeply process-driven way offered the best chance at success, especially if they were willing to make small accommodations. If so, they’d be rewarded with, as Tom puts it, “really consistent employees, and employees who really care about the work they are doing.”
They realized that the business with the highest potential for success—and ability to reach the most customers—was Rising Tide Car Wash. A car wash is highly structured and organized, and usually employs between twenty and forty people.
After a seven-week pilot program at Liberty Car Wash in Florida City, Florida, with fifteen employees with autism, the potential became clear. Tom’s team performed as well, if not better, than any other employees, with clockwork consistency.
Rising Tide Car Wash opened in April 2013, offering $8 an hour, plus tips, to entry-level employees (this averages out to about $11 an hour). Wages increase as employees work up the ranks, and there are currently 35 employees, ages 17-48.
In its first month, Rising Tide averaged 2,600 cars, near the average of the previous owners. By December 2013, they were processing 7,500 vehicles, and are looking to bring in 10,000 by March 2014. Employees assist with everything from simple exterior washes to detailing. The D’Eris’ goal is to prove how successful a workforce that accepts and includes people with autism can be.
“Something as simple as a job at a car wash, which doesn’t seem like a huge deal, can have a drastic impact on someone with autism’s life,” says Tom.
Finding work, as anyone who has experienced a lengthy job-hunt can tell you, can be transformative. At Rising Tide, the D’Eris have seen dramatic changes in their employees. Forty-eight-year-old “Big” Joe Reilly lives with his brother and sister and had been unemployed for four years, and now keeps telling his bosses how much he values his job. Time and again, car wash employees start out extremely nervous but are seen trying new tasks after a few weeks’ accomplishments at work. Their families tell the D’Eris that their sons have become more active in family life and show a desire to make new friends—behaviors they’ve never seen before. Some who had been extremely shy now race to greet new customers.
Andrew currently works three days a week at Rising Tide. His victories have been simple yet tremendous, as he quickly made changes to deeply entrenched behaviors. He’s willing to try new foods—like a sandwich slathered in mushrooms. He shows empathy and has become more inclined to share.
“This is behavior that Andrew has never shown, ever,” Tom says. “I think it’s because we’re giving him and our other employees the opportunity to feel like they’re capable of more than they previously thought possible.”
Had Tom followed his set career path, he’d likely be working at a consulting firm in New York, perhaps talking to Andrew every few months while his parents took care of him. Now, they work together at the car wash.
“We’re talking. We’re working together. I’m on him all the time. He likes to sneak away and fold the towels or roll the vacuum hoses when there’s cars that need to be cleaned,” Tom says with a laugh, knowing that if Andrew were neuro-typical, he’d ride him just as hard. “That’s normal brother behavior, right?”
Want to learn more?
Is someone in your family affected by Autism? Have you ever asked yourself the question, “What will my family member with autism do when I am no longer around to take care of them?” If you’re like us, this question has not only crossed your mind but is a concern that keeps you up at night. This question spurred the D’Eri family into action and is the inspiration behind Rising Tide Car Wash.
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