For the autistic, a chance for a full life

Updated: 2012-02-19 08:35

By Lyndsey Lewis(The New York Times)

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He was charming, frustrating and ultimately lovable. But Raymond Babbitt, the autistic character played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film "Rain Man," was also a card counter.

When Raymond won big in Las Vegas, a cliche was born.

Since then, the idea that autistic people can possess unusual abilities has been lodged in our collective consciousness. The number of autism diagnoses has skyrocketed in recent decades, and The Times reported that in the United States, the disorder is said to affect nearly one in 100 children.

There can be comfort in believing an autistic child might grow up to be a savant. The real world can be a frightening and lonely place for people with autism, and many wind up living at home with their parents in adulthood.

For the autistic, a chance for a full life

But new efforts to integrate autistic people into the workforce seek to change that. Some employers are welcoming people across the spectrum, offering them jobs that can channel their interests and cater to their abilities.

A Danish company called Specialisterne is trying to lead the way. Founded by Thorkil Sonne, who has an autistic child, Specialisterne hires people with autism to serve as consultants, The Times reported. Mr. Sonne reasoned that fields like software testing could find use for autistic consultants, who often show interest in patterns and enjoy repetitive activities. The company has proved especially valuable to its employees. Steen B. Iversen, who works for Specialisterne and has Asperger's syndrome, used to have trouble keeping jobs because of his problems communicating.

"People would laugh about me behind my back and laugh at me to my face," he told The Times. Mr. Sonne has also brought Specialisterne to other countries, including the United States, where about 200,000 young autistic people will enter adulthood during the next few years.

Adjusting to social situations is a skill many autistic people struggle to master, so Thomas Macchiaverna, an American teacher, put his middle school students to work at a campus coffee shop.

"It's a different avenue than the standard educational curriculum," Mr. Macchiaverna, 27, told The Times. "It's outside the box, which you have to be with this kind of program."

His students have sometimes required nudging on basic niceties - remembering to greet customers with a smile, for example - but, overall, business has gone well. One day, the children in Mr. Macchiaverna's class and others like it might find jobs at a major American drug store chain or a retirement organization, both of which, The Times reported, offer programs designed for autistic employees.

Kate Stanton-Paule coordinates a program in New Jersey for young people with special needs and tries to ease their transition to adulthood, The Times wrote. She focuses on skills they will need to find work and survive on their own, such as telephone etiquette. For Justin Canha, an autistic man who enjoys drawing cartoons, Ms. Stanton-Paule arranged a job interview at an animation studio.

Mr. Canha eventually landed an internship, and dreams of becoming a "famous animator-illustrator."

Even with more opportunities, autistic people face struggles. It took Ms. Stanton-Paule months to persuade the studio's president just to meet with Mr. Canha.

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(China Daily 02/19/2012 page9)