By Jan Randall
I was driving in the car the other day when The Who’s song, “The Real Me” came on the radio. I have loved that song since the Quadrophenia album came out when I was 15. Thankfully my son Andrew and I have similar taste in music so he didn’t mind me cranking up the volume.
As I sang along with Andrew sitting next to me, I thought, he could be singing the refrain: “Can you see the real me, can ya, can ya? Can you see the real me, can you see?”
Andrew has been out of a traditional the Adult day program for 3 years now. He has a program from home that I designed specifically to give him a shot having the most normal life possible, at least as normal as you can get when Autism has made communicating a huge challenge and when your sensory system is easily overwhelmed. Leaving the Adult program is one of the best decisions I ever made for him, but it isn’t always easy. The biggest challenge has been to find Andrew work of any kind.
When Andrew was about 16, he started having behavior issues in the more academic classes at school, so we shifted the focus to developing “vocational skills”. His school did a terrific job with offering him a lot of different opportunities. He worked at a greenhouse, he delivered those free weekly newspapers to businesses, he did yard work and gardening, he stocked shelves and filled boxes with food at a food pantry, and he interned at Big Lots, working in the stockroom.
We quickly discovered that Andrew loved to work and I do mean LOVED to work. Being able to be out, and active made him so happy. His behavior issues all but disappeared and his teachers were thrilled to discover all he could do, and do well.
Unfortunately when you make the leap from school to adult life the opportunities to work fizzle out… Andrew’s job coach Kim and I have spent a good part of the last 3 years looking for any opportunities for him to volunteer, intern or have an actual paying job. Recently however it looked like things would change. One of Andrew’s former mentors, Mike came to me and said he had spoken to a person in charge where he had previously worked, about having Andrew intern there. The person said he knew who Andrew was, that he liked the idea and felt that it would be a great opportunity for everyone involved. All that was needed was to talk to the owner. Mike was excited and felt pretty confident about this opportunity. Both Kim and I were thrilled.
Kim contacted the owner after the holidays, eager for a fresh start for Andrew in the New Year. However, before she could even finish asking about the possible internship she was told, No. I know him. He isn’t a good fit.” When she tried to push on explaining that she would be with him, supporting him and that the business was getting a 2 for 1 deal, she was again told, “No. he wouldn’t be a good fit.”
When Kim told me what happened I have to say I felt a pit in my stomach. I knew what “I know him…” meant. It meant: I know he stims. I’ve seen him stimming and humming when he comes in here. I have heard his voice and he talks too loud. I don’t want that in my place of business.
So, a couple of days later when I heard the song “The Real Me” it made me wonder. Will anyone see the real Andrew? Will someone put aside what they “know” long enough to look at his resume? Will someone look past the stimming to see the guy, who is a hard worker and will never miss a day of work? Will someone put aside their preconceived notions about Autism and who Andrew is, and give him a chance to show how his skills can benefit their business?
Part of me wants to be pessimistic. It’s been 3 years of looking and all we have to show for it is two very small volunteer jobs that take less than 3 hours a week. But most days I have to believe that the answer is yes. I have to believe that there are good people out there who will “see the real me” and give Andrew, and so many others like him, who desperately want to work, or volunteer, a chance to contribute to their community, and to show their knowledge, gifts and skills.