Larry Clay: My name is Lawrence Clay Jr. I go to work at Mark Center in Alexandria. I've been working at the Mark Center for almost three years. I'm smart and hardworking and I'm prompt. And I try to work independently on my own.
Harold Michael: Larry's role is part of the setup crew. And his designation would be he's a setup staff member. He has to basically setup the conference rooms for all the conferences, tear them down as per the clients' needs and he does a wonderful job doing that. It's not just manual labor, basically; it's a very key role because without that we would not be able to function.
Jasmine: Are you ready to get started on the setup?
Larry Clay: Yes
Larry Clay: My typical day is Jasmine gives me the work order for many executive rooms that chairs need to be taken away from the other room to the new executive room. I was setting up conference rooms that need to be setup depending on the customer for how many people they need.
Carmencita Clay: At age four, Larry was diagnosed with Autism. The children's hospital we took him there to be diagnosed.
Clement Castellano: Autism is a spectrum disorder, so you'll have people who have very mild autism and then you can go through the spectrum and they'll have different characteristics of autism to very severe. Typically it's the social piece that's the most difficult part. It's hard to describe only because it's different for every individual and Larry came to us looking to increase his social skills and his career exploration and job opportunities. If you know Larry, met Larry, he's absolutely the life. He's always been delightful, always just been a happy guy, an extremely hard worker. Just has a very agreeable personality, but he was I would say he was a pretty anxious guy when I first met him. When Larry came to us, he had expressed an interest in doing office work. Most people with disabilities, certainly a lot of the ones that I work with don't have those same social opportunities so they're just not aware of what's out there. And so one of the primary missions is not just the training, but also the exposure to allow the students to try different things even if it might be something that they don't want to do because as everyone knows that's what being an adult is. It's trying things and seeing what you like, and what you don't like and what you may have thought was something that you were going to hate is something that you love and vice versa, so that was really the focus was to get Larry to try different things so he could make an informed decision about what he wanted to do when he could drive his own future.
Carmencita Clay: after Larry turned 18, he started getting the cash benefit from Social Security Administration, but they called it SSI. Shortly after he turned 18, also he was' he started working as a part time intern at Service Source. That was his first job.
Jan Williams: Service Source is a private, not for profit organization and we provide services to adults with disabilities. Service Source hired Larry to provide office supports for the rehabilitation program.
Clement Castellano: And service Source was able to help really flesh out and broaden that skill. All of the things that are not in a job description, what do you do when two supervisors give you two different sets of directions, how to work as part of a team, how to work independently, there are all these little things that are nowhere in a job description, but every employer expects you to bring that with you.
Carmencita Clay: After he started working, the cash benefits stopped. But still we were still getting support from Social Security through Ticket to Work program especially when he was looking for a job. As a beneficiary of SSI, they sent us information about the Ticket to Work program and they encouraged us to enroll him there so that's why I enrolled him.
Missy Crawford-Smith: I was Larry's job coach so Larry and I did what we call job development. We got together you know once, twice a week, we looked for jobs, we practiced interview skills. Did all of those job readiness type of things, cover letters and all that. And then when he would get interviews, I kind of help him go on the interview; make sure he had transportation and all of that. Once he started work we did job coaching.
Carmencita Clay: they helped us a lot in trying to get a job for him, and it was very competitive market when Larry transitioned. But finally the big break came with the Mark Center opening and it was perfect for him. Jan Williams: There was a position to help setup rooms and take care of the AV needs and Larry's name came to mind and that's because someone who had worked out of the main office with Larry while he was an intern knew him and got to know him, know his work ethic, know his personality and when they were opening she immediately thought of him and suggested that he apply.
Missy Crawford-Smith: As a work incentive counselor, I've worked with a lot of people who are transitioning off of social security cash benefits and a lot of them when they come to me thinking about going to work, have the concerns about what's going to happen to my cash benefits and even more concerns about what's going to happen to my healthcare coverage. What's great about the SSI program is they have a couple different work incentive programs to help you keep that Medicaid coverage.
Carmencita Clay: It's very important for Larry to work. It gives him a sense of accomplishment and makes him feel more independent and it's better that he is contributing to society and contributing to his community.
Missy Crawford-Smith: I think Larry has become so much more independent now that he's working. He dresses up and gets himself up and ready for work and it's really great to see how happy he is at work and as he's transitioned to a full time job in the workforce.
Larry Clay: I know how to use my ATM machine; I know how to budget my money for snacks lunches and breakfast. Harold Michael: I definitely think he enjoys working and he's always looking to work even when he's not physically setting up a room. He's actually asking to go on rounds and he has a schedule that keeps him occupied all the time and he never complains about it. Never.
Carmencita Clay: Oh Larry has come a long way. His dad and I talk about it. Never in our dreams did we imagine that he'll find a full time job and a good job at that, you know. He is gainfully employed and when we think about the time when he was 4 years old and he couldn't even talk and we look at him now, he's fairly independent and we're just grateful. So I think that's his greatest achievement right now.
Larry Clay: Important to go to work every day. It's exhilarating. I try to come to work with a smile and I am punctual. It makes me feel happy and proud.
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Autism’s Assets: Larry Clay’s Story
Published in 2014
Larry Clay greeted his new supervisor with an unaffected enthusiasm that left the man momentarily speechless. “Good morning Mr. Michael. I haven’t seen you in a while!” he said, in rapid staccato. It had been years since they met at a professional training session. “How is Valerie? Are you still driving the grey, 2008 Nissan Quest with the two DVD players and the cream interior?” Larry’s eyes remained fixed on the wall as he continued to recall details about their first meeting. Harold Michael scratched his head and wondered how this young man remembered the name of his wife, and details about the car he drove two years earlier. It was unusual. It would be useful. Larry did what came naturally to someone who brings together an interest in people with a superior, long-term memory. He retrieved information that many of us would not have stored in the first place. It’s not unusual for coworkers to be pleasantly surprised when Larry remembers something unique that makes them feel visible. It is this skill that helps set him apart at work. But it is not his only asset.
Novel Neurology. Novel Thinking. Novel Solutions.
Larry Clay belongs to a cohort of young people with a developmental disability that has been misunderstood for decades. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term for a group of complex disorders of brain and nervous system development. It is characterized by difficulties with social interaction, communication, and controlling certain body movements. Many people with ASD experience their five senses differently, with sensitivities to noise, crowds or bright lights. Imagine living in a body that does not cooperate with your intent; reacting outside your control in public or social settings. This is what many individuals with ASD describe. It’s no wonder anxiety is prevalent among people on the spectrum. Because of the complexity of ASD, consensus has not been reached about the causes of, or biology underlying the disorders. People on the spectrum have a nervous system that causes them to experience their environment differently and think about things in ways that are hard for others to conceive. Some say it feels like they are living on an alien planet, trying to make sense of social interactions among what they call “neurotypical” humans. (The autism community coined the term "neurotypical" to describe someone who is not on the autism spectrum.) Living with ASD is not easy. But the novel neurology that goes with it can cut both ways. Employers are starting to see real value in some of the characteristics that often accompany autism. One person’s “obsessive compulsive disorder” (OCD) is another person’s unwavering attention to detail. For example, as one employer noted, "Historically, there seemed to be a certain perception of this population as being incapable of performing corporate level work," Freddie Mac's diversity manager Stephanie Roemer told Reuters. "In reality, people on the spectrum offer so much to an organization willing to think outside of the box and view this cadre of talent as a 'value add'."
Innovative Employers Embrace Autism
As the need for innovation is alive and well in the US economy, some savvy employers realize that “neurological diversity” can be good for business. SAP, the world’s third largest software firm, recently announced their intention to hire hundreds of ASD workers. “People affected by autism bring… tremendous capabilities that are important for us as an IT company,” says Jose Velasco, who heads up SAP’s Autism at Work Initiative. Velasco and his colleagues see assets where others see disability. He points out that strong visual memory, the ability to recognize patterns and spot deviations in data and low tolerance for mistakes “…are all attributes that will add value in our field. There is a great potential here to lower costs and improve customer satisfaction,” he notes. Qualities like these, as well as an ability to approach problems in a creative or counterintuitive way make some people with ASD potentially attractive employees. The Israeli army has recognized this as well. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Intelligence Unit 9900, made up of soldiers on the spectrum with specialized visual and analytical skills, is highly regarded for the unique work they do for the army.
Some employers who recognize assets that can go with autism include the Arc, Aspiritech, the US Federal Government, CVS, Goodwill Industries, IDF, Lowes, Sam’s Club, SAP, Specialisterne, and Walgreens. To learn more, see sources listed at the end of this feature.
Autism: The Unknown
Carmencita Clay did not see her son’s autism as an asset when he was diagnosed in 1991. She remembers being concerned about Larry as a small child because it took a long time for him to learn how to walk; use his hands like other children did; speak in complete sentences, or play with other children. They brought him to Child Find Pre-School Diagnostic Center for an evaluation. “When we got the diagnosis, all of a sudden everything went dark,” she recalls. “I was numb. I didn’t understand. I was afraid Larry would suffer… that he might be institutionalized. It was devastating.” Carmencita’s concerns about her son’s future reflected the bleak outlook for so many people with autism years ago. Larry began receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) when he was 18 and his family was glad he received this support from Social Security. He was fortunate to have been brought up by caring, involved parents who devoted their time and energy to making sure he had the support he would need to lead a fulfilling life. Preparation for the workforce was an important part of this support system. Grateful that the reality of his life today bears little resemblance to her worst fears, Carmencita credits family, clinicians, educators and a team of employment support providers with Larry’s achievements in the workforce so far.
Find Benefits Counseling Help
Benefits counselors (also known as benefits advisors) are professionals who can explain how Social Security Work Incentives apply to you. Professionals who have completed Social Security-sponsored training that qualifies them to offer benefits counseling are known as “Community Work Incentives Coordinators” (CWICs). Community-based organizations known as “Work Incentives Planning and Assistance Projects” (WIPA), have CWICs on staff. A CWIC can help you learn about Work Incentives and understand how work will affect your benefits. To find a provider that offers benefits counseling, use the “Find Help” tool. Use the filtering feature to pinpoint services tailored to you. Select “Work Incentives Counseling” on the services menu to filter your search. For help, you can also call the Ticket to Work Help Line at 1-866-968-7842 (V) or 1-866-833-2967 (TTY).
It Takes a Village… A Ticket to Work and a Few Work Incentives
Public school staff in Fairfax County, Virginia worked with Larry to help him recognize his strengths and interests. They focused on the “soft skills” such as teamwork, professional appearance and demeanor that are essential to success in the workplace. Larry spent time with his high school transition counselor, Clement Castellano, discussing his plans for employment. Castellano understood he needed to teach the unwritten rules of becoming a valued employee; and this meant first placing Larry in a setting where he could learn the ropes. Larry’s transition counselor collaborated with Virginia’s state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency to prepare Larry for work. They began by educating his family about Social Security’s Ticket to Work program. Larry was eligible to receive individualized counseling and assistance that would help him get ready for the workforce and find a job. These services, which are free through Ticket to Work, are available to individuals age 18 through 64 who receive Social Security disability benefits. Through the Ticket program, Larry would receive career counseling, job training, assistance navigating a job hunt, job coaching, and other individualized services to help him succeed on the job. He was eager to get started. But he had to first learn how employment would affect his Social Security disability benefits. Like many people considering employment, Larry was concerned about his benefits. He learned from a trained professional (known as a benefits counselor) that Social Security rules called Work Incentives allow many people to transition into the workforce while continuing to receive healthcare benefits (Medicaid and/or Medicare) and some cash benefits from Social Security. Because each person’s circumstances are different, consulting a benefits counselor can be helpful, enabling people to make informed decisions about work. Once Larry’s family understood what working would mean for his benefits, he was ready to explore his employment options.
The Soft Stepping Stone
With help from VR and the Fairfax school transition team, Larry decided he would be well-suited for office work. When he was 18, they set him up in an internship, where he would learn to complete administrative tasks while developing the soft skills he needed for long-term success at work. VR provided a personal job coach who would get to know Larry, accompany him on the job, and help him use the strategies he was taught to problem-solve in a professional setting. ServiceSource, a non-profit organization that supports individuals with disabilities, had an opening for a part-time administrative intern. ServiceSource helps people with disabilities find and maintain employment at other organizations. But they also had a need for administrative help in their Alexandria, VA office. So they offered Larry his first job. It was a good learning environment. He gained confidence in his technical skills while learning to decode the unwritten rules of “neurotypical” interaction at the office. It didn’t take long for his co-workers to notice the assets he brought with him to work. Clement Castellano helps prospective employers that are new to understanding autism see the value in traits that can be real strengths in a vocational setting. He articulates Larry’s strengths well. “When applied to digitizing paper files or organizing materials, Larry’s precision, attention to detail and work ethic are a bonus,” he says. “He craves the structure of a task with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Leaving a job incomplete would make him uncomfortable. Larry’s unwavering focus on the work means an employer can rely on him in a way they may not be able to with a worker that is more interested in socializing or watching the clock”. Jan Williams, Larry’s supervisor at ServiceSource, described how he impressed her and other staff. “When Larry completed one job, he went to others in the office and asked what else he could do to help. He was always looking for more work to do. The sense of accomplishment and pride he took away… knowing he did a good job was palpable,” she recalls. By the summer of 2010, Larry had completed his internship and developed a reputation as a strong, reliable employee. “The room was a little sunnier when he was here,” says Williams.
ServiceSource is a leading nonprofit disability resource organization that serves individuals with disabilities through a range of employment, training, rehabilitation, housing and other support services. ServiceSource directly employs more than 1,500 individuals on government and commercial affirmative employment contracts, making this agency one of the largest employers of people with disabilities nationwide. Strategic partnerships with local community businesses, government entities and nonprofits help bridge the gaps for individuals with disabilities, creating sustainable opportunities that benefit the entire community and result in greater independence for the individual. ServiceSource is also an authorized provider of employment support services through Social Security’s Ticket to Work program. Hundreds of Ticket to Work service providers across the country (known as “Employment Networks” or ENs) work with Ticket program participants to help them prepare for, find and maintain employment. Most ENs are not also employers. But ServiceSource is both! To learn more visit www.servicesource.org.
When Larry was ready to find full-time work, his VR counselor helped him navigate a job hunt. They met every week to review leads, hone interview skills, and schedule appointments. In 2011, Larry had the break he was looking for. He landed a job working at The Mark Center (a US Department of Defense facility). Larry is part of a team that sets up the center’s 27 conference rooms for daily government meetings. The job requires planning logistics, strong visual memory, quantitative concepts, attention to detail, and customer service skills he is glad he had a chance to cultivate in his earlier job training.
Harold Michael, Larry’s supervisor at The Mark Center, says he is a valuable asset to the team. “Larry has an outstanding work ethic, is energetic, and a good model for others,” Michael says. He points out that Larry’s ability to visualize patterns and make quick calculations in his head allow him to fill orders efficiently. He has learned to accept and apply input from co-workers, and his interest in people helped him in the customer service aspects of the job. “He has an uncanny memory for people’s names. It never fails to put a smile on their face. Customers enjoy Larry and so do his co-workers,” Michael says.
Partnership Plus: A Continuum of Support
Many people like Larry need ongoing support that will allow them to remain employed and increase their earnings over time. Larry’s VR counselor explained that his state VR agency could help him find work. But three months after he started a new job, support services from VR would come to an end. That’s why VR agencies often collaborate with Ticket to Work service providers known as Employment Networks (ENs). Through the Ticket program, VR agencies and ENs both offer services that help people prepare for and find work. ENs also provide the continuing “post-employment” support services that set people up for success and enable career development. Some program participants choose to work with an EN from the beginning. Others find a job with help from VR and then, after VR has closed their case, use their Ticket to work with an EN. This arrangement, known as “Partnership Plus,” gives Ticket to Work program participants continued access to individualized employment support services, should they need them.
Larry worked with the high school transition office and his state VR agency to gain office work skills through an internship at ServiceSource, and then find a permanent job at The Mark Center. After he worked for three months at The Mark Center, his VR case was closed. Larry decided to work with an EN that could offer job coaching and other post-employment support services to help him succeed on the job. Ordinarily, he might have shopped around for ENs that served his region. But Larry didn’t have to look any further than ServiceSource. In addition to being his first employer, ServiceSource is also an EN that has a Partnership Plus agreement with Virginia’s state VR agency. Most ENs are not also employers. But ServiceSource is a large organization that employs people with disabilities, and collaborates with local agencies to help youth in transition like Larry find work. He was familiar with ServiceSource from his time as an intern, and knew the staff there would be well-equipped to support his career growth.
Like other young graduates, Larry is enjoying the sense of achievement he gets from a paycheck and the responsibilities that go with full-time employment. He has left his SSI cash benefits behind, and feels great about himself and his job.
“I’m learning to be more independent!” he says with pride. “I take public transportation and plan my own meals. I have my own credit card and I stick to a budget…”
“Work has really improved Larry’s outlook,” Carmencita adds. “It has made him more confident. He enjoys being part of a team; has learned about flexibility and getting along with different kinds of people at work. Employment has made Larry a happier, healthier person… and Ticket to Work helped him get here!”
With the right support, Larry found his path to a better future. Find yours! To learn more, call the Ticket to Work Help Line at 1-866-968-7842 (V) or 866-833-2967 (TTY).