Connecting workers on the autism spectrum with tech jobs

Tranen intends to ease the transition to work with training — for employees and, if needed, for co-workers who aren't on the autism spectrum. The goal is for Aspire employees to work onsite at the companies or agencies for which they're contracting.

"A lot of it is … just opening some people's eyes to this unique disability," Tranen said. "And figuring out how, with some very modest accommodations, we can create jobs for people that are really of tremendous benefit to the employers. It's not a charitable act. It's smart business."

Shanna Pool, assistant principal of Kennedy Krieger Institute's special-education high school in Baltimore, said tech jobs can be a good fit for people with autism or Asperger's.

"It's not necessary to read emotions when they're working on computers, or social cues," she said. "It's more concrete, straightforward and logical, and generally their thinking is concrete, straightforward and logical."

Other efforts — in the country and overseas — focus on the technology sector. The nonPareil Institute in Texas, for instance, hires people with spectrum disorders to produce smartphone apps and e-books.

The nonprofit, founded in 2008 by two men who have sons on the spectrum, also is training 120 students in technical fields.

"We need some big solutions, and we need a lot of them," said Gary W. Moore, the institute's co-founder and president. "Our goal is to get a paycheck in these kids' pocket, and we feel technology is a way to do it for many of them because of their affinity for technology."

Julie Foley, Shane Foley's mother, said her son prepared for a data-entry job, taking IT classes in school and doing data entry in a work-study program. The family found out about the Aspire program by chance — the Howard County school system's director of special education heard about it and immediately thought of the Foleys.

Now Shane Foley does the job from one of the office cubicles at The Arc of Howard County, close to home. It's his first paid position. (His mother declined to say how much he earns per hour, but she said it's more than minimum wage.)

Though he speaks in one- or several-word phrases, Foley has no trouble communicating how much he loves the work. He's laser-focused on it. He's smiling. And when asked what he thinks of it, he responded, "Yay!"

The Department of Juvenile Services is testing a point system to reward incarcerated youths for good behavior. Foley's job is to record each young adult's points, broken down by time and behavior categories. It takes him an hour or less each day to enter the previous day's records, except on Mondays, when he has the weekend to handle.

Foley is eligible for a state-funded counselor, a position unrelated to the Aspire program. Rosemaria Batts is with him as he does his paid work in the morning before they move on to his volunteer work with Meals on Wheels and the Columbia Association. She sees how he enters information, how he catches problems like incorrect dates or missing records.

"He's very meticulous," Batts said. And besides that, "he's sweet and he's nice and just so easy to be with."

Julie Foley said her son enjoys earning money, but he loves the work for its own sake. And it has opened his horizons, making him more social.

"It gives him a sense of identity on multiple levels — not just what do you do, but who do you do it with?" she said. "As a parent, I'm just thankful every day."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

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