Local Lettuce Company Employs, Trains Young People With Autism

Noah prepares the Lettuce Work greenhouse for seedlings. Lettuce Work, in New Albany, hires and trains adults with autism spectrum disorder.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News)
Noah prepares the Lettuce Work greenhouse for seedlings. Lettuce Work, in New Albany, hires and trains adults with autism spectrum disorder.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News)

The face of autism is children. The bulk of services and research – at least until very recently – has focused on children. But children eventually become adults. And they’ll need services tailored to their grown-up needs. What does the jobs picture for adults with autism look like?

A man, in his early 20s, is learning the cleaning process at Lettuce Work, a hydroponic lettuce company in New Albany.

He’s shown to shake off the excess water then put the lettuce into a spinning machine where the moisture is wicked away from the leafy greens.

Julie Sharp and her husband own Lettuce Work, a non-profit that offers employment and job training for adults with autism spectrum disorder. Sharp said they decided to open the business after their son was diagnosed with autism. He’s now 13.

“In terms of employment, it’s a pretty grim picture. And we thought, you know, we want to have something where he could work and other people, as well; and maybe learn some of those skills that they need for employability, and or to just have a job,” Sharp said.

The company has been in full operation for about two months. It has five full-time employees, two have autism. They make minimum wage. Owner Julie Sharp says she hopes as more contracts come in she’ll be able to boost their pay and hire more workers.

Limited opportunities

We talked with a worker and asked him what he likes best about coming to work every day.

Noah prefers to get an early start. around 5:30 or 6 a.m. Noah recently began to launder employee uniforms that are kept on site without being asked, a job skill Sharp says she’s very proud he has learned.

Post-high school opportunities can be bleak for adults with autism. A study by Drexel University researcher Paul Shattuck found more than half of young people on the autism spectrum two years out of high school have not connected with college, vocational training or paying jobs.

Shattuck added people with autism have a more difficult time finding work than those with other kinds of disabilities.

Fewer manual jobs

His theory on why has to do with the economy’s demands. There are fewer manual labor jobs and more service-based jobs.

“Social interaction is kind of a defining feature of most service sector jobs. And what’s the defining feature of autism as a disability? It’s difficulty with social interaction,” Shattuck said. “And so it’s a lot harder to find job niches for people for whom dealing with other people and interacting effectively with others is at the heart of most jobs these days.”

People on the autism spectrum also can have trouble processing details and handling inconsistent work days.

Kristen Helling works with Employment First, a state Developmental Disabilities’ Department task-force designed to streamline job services. Helling said job planning is essential.

“It needs to start when that child is still in school, in middle school, or even younger, to plant the expectation of employment…so that they have the skills that they need in order to be successful in employment.”

Franklin County’s Developmental Disabilities Department currently has 1,640 people placed in community jobs, vocational rehabilitation or workshops. Forty others are trying to get a job. The department doesn’t break down the number of individuals on the autism spectrum.

Limited resources for Autism

In many cases, there are limited vocational services for adults with autism. But according to a spokeswoman at Autism Speaks, Ohio is doing better than other states.

But not everyone with autism will qualify for assistance. For those who do, navigating the system can be tough.

George Gebert, of Worthington, thinks there are too many programs.

“They overlap in so many ways.”

Gebert’s son, Daniel, 21, is on the autism spectrum. Gebert said bureaucratic red tape prevents programs from being effective, and he said they aren’t as individualized as they should be.

“We waste incredible amounts of money trying to start up a new program to hit a niche, nuanced idea that’s not necessarily going to take off,” Gebert said.

Lost in the system

Helling admits the system is “confusing.” She said state and county agencies are working to change that. Helling adds agencies have moved toward customized services.

“After we identify a good goal for that person, something that’s going to meet their skills, their talents, their abilities, then we can match that person’s skills and abilities up with an employer who’s looking for that particular skill and make that connection. And then be able to support that person long term.”

Gebert came with his son, Daniel, for the first day of his summer internship at Lettuce Work. Daniel has held numerous jobs: bakeries, golf courses, aquarium stores. Gebert said he’s trying to teach his son a work ethic.

“Get up on time. Be proud of yourself. Hygiene. Show up on time…Just become a regular working Joe.”

Gebert is unsure if his son will be able to live on his own. But he’s trying to create a foundation for Daniel’s future.

“I’d like to get to the point where Danny looks at the buffet of things we’ve got there for him, and says he’s going to do certain things, but chose to something versus nothing.”

  • Jim Wurster

    This is a great idea. It’s really up to us parents to come up with these kinds of creative, out-of-the-box solution. We can’t rely upon the system to help because it is overloaded.