When Michael received his diploma in 2014, he wanted what any high school graduate wants – a chance to be independent.

He had been a member of his Maine high school swim team, prom king, and a church volunteer. However, achieving independence after high school was a challenge.

Michael has autism. He has overcome many obstacles – he was non-verbal until the age of 5 and struggled to get his diploma. Once he graduated, he faced a number of roadblocks while trying to secure a part-time job.

Michael’s mother, Cindy, a long-time advocate for her son, did everything she could to help him.

“It was a little annoying that we couldn’t get him to achieve what he wanted to do in his life, and that was to work part-time and hopefully have a place of his own someday.”

Michael can’t handle cash or work at a cash register. Because of this, many retailers wouldn’t consider him. Michael’s mother pushed on, taking him out to meet with employers unannounced.

“You can’t get past the title and what these employers think they’re capable of. They have these images in their heads and that’s as far as it goes,” she said.

Eventually, they hit a dead end.

“We were told he would likely not be able to get employed at all in Maine because a lot of employers see individuals with special needs as being a liability.”

Traditional vocational training was not an option for Michael. While he is part of the 10 percent of individuals with autism who have savant skills, a set of extraordinary skills not exhibited by most people, he was not able to complete the math requirements needed.

With a lack of supportive services available to them, Cindy and her husband quit their jobs, sold their house and moved to Virginia. They were willing to do whatever it took to help Michael gain independence. Michael’s sister had attended college in Virginia and suggested they move to Roanoke. She knew there was more of an opportunity for Michael to be successful in Virginia than Maine.

Once in Roanoke, Michael began working with LFSVA’s Supported Employment Services. He continued to look for jobs and applied to work at Kroger. When the hiring manager called to set up an interview, Cindy took the moment to thank him for giving her son a chance.

“I said, ‘Do you mind if I talk to you for a moment? It’s kind of a unique situation.’”

She told him, “Michael’s been trying to find a job for two years. He has autism and nobody’s willing to give him a chance, so I want to thank you for at least agreeing to meet with him.”

Michael met with the hiring manager and was hired on the spot.

“He’s the happiest bagger you’ve ever seen.”

His official title is “Courtesy Clerk.” The position is perfect for Michael, Cindy says, because he is unusually social and it does not require him to handle money.

While his family is thrilled he has gained employment, the situation still presents its own set of challenges. Michael is unable to ride public transportation due to safety issues, so he relies on a private transit service that does not run on Sunday, holidays, or snow days. On those days, Cindy drives her son to and from work.

Still, she remains positive.

“I am a realist – there is no fixing it, it’s impossible,” she said. “But you just have to work around it.”

Michael has been working at Kroger for a few months, and he has expanded his responsibilities and skills to include light stocking, customer service and appreciation, bagging, light cleaning and cart retrieval. His managers are happy with his work performance, and Michael says he loves his job.

He now has his sights set on his next goal – to save up enough money to get his own apartment to gain even more independence.

Cindy’s message to potential employers is simple: “There’s more to the individual than the diagnosis. They have to learn to see past that and look at the individual and not be blinded by the diagnosis.”

 

If you or someone you know are a hiring manager and would like to hear more about the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, please reach out to Ashley Thompson at athompson@lfsva.org.