No. Can’t. Won’t. Never.
When Brett and Angela Carpenter look back at that moment 16 years ago when a doctor a diagnosed their then-two-year-old son Reese with autism, it’s those words, heavy and definitive, that they most remember.
“It was pretty negative, like a death sentence,” Angela says now, shaking her head at the memory. “‘He won’t be able to do this, won’t be able to do that.’ They said he wouldn’t be able to speak. You go home, paralyzed in fear.”
That’s how the Carpenters felt, for about a minute, until they, too, said “No” - to everything they’d just heard.
“We were not going to accept that. It was a punch in the gut, but we thought ‘We are going to figure this out.’”
She looks across the table over what’s left of her breakfast at the Juno Beach Cafe, waving her hand in the direction of a young man busily wiping off tables with a rag.
“You’ve met Reese. You know he talks.”
At 18, her son, a gangly, slightly reserved young man with a shy smile and a deep laugh, sure can talk. He can also bus tables, pour coffee and greet regulars during his very busy Sunday shift at this bustling breakfast spot.
“I think I do a really good job doing the coffee,” Reese says later, and he is. Some of those tasks have come easier to the Jupiter teen than others. But each thing he’s mastered has been because he, as well as his parents, his co-workers and others, have focused on the can-dos instead of the can’ts.
“We wanted him to have a life skill, to be able to take direction from someone besides his parents, ” father Brett explains. “And we wanted a total focus on what he can do.”
“I think people just enjoy him. He’s good at his job because he is who he is,” says Terri Anderson, the manager of the Juno Beach Cafe, where Reese has worked every other Sunday for about a year.
It’s incredibly common for kids his age to have a part-time job, and to juggle that job, like Reese does, with classes and other activities like gymnastics and surfing. But as one of the 3.5 million Americans on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Reese’s story is not as common as it should be, according to disabilities advocates.
According to a recent study by Philadelphia’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, 40 percent of young adults with autism don’t find work or continue their education beyond high school, and those in their 20s are less likely to be employed than their contemporaries with other disabilities.
There are constant efforts to include and encourage those with disabilities to seek and maintain employment, and for community members and business owners to provide those opportunities, including October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
But experts say more people need to be aware that these opportunities exist, as many “are unaware of what autism is, or stereotype (those who have it) based on what they’ve seen on TV or on one person with autism they have met,” says Dr. Toby Honsberger, Reese’s principal at Renaissance Learning Academy, a West Palm Beach charter high school for those on the spectrum. “Hopefully, people don’t focus on generalizations of what they can’t do.”
Reese, specifically, has Asperger Syndrome, a disorder considered to be on “the high functioning end of the spectrum,” according to the Autism Speaks organization, which describes those affected as having “difficulty with social interactions and exhibit a restricted range of interests and/or repetitive behaviors.”
Those difficulties can become both challenges and opportunities for businesses to help. Parkland’s Rising Tide Car Wash, for instance, hires only employees with autism, to capitalize on their attention to detail and repetitive skills, turning “what was perceived as a weakness into a strength,” says Reese’s dad Brett.
When the Carpenters observed a few kids his son’s age working at Juno Beach Cafe while they were having breakfast, and decided to ask manager Anderson if she’d consider hiring Reese. The family “was looking for an opportunity that would provide him with more social engagement. We saw the young boy working and thought ‘He could do this,’” Brett explained.
Anderson says she’d never been approached about employing s0meone with a disability, but as a former teacher “I know about the spectrum somewhat, and I figured his dad wouldn’t be asking if he didn’t think he could do something. So I was all for it.”
The only person initially not into Reese working there was Reese.
“He said ‘I don’t want to do it,’” Angela says.
But with some encouragement, he was talked into it. It took a while to find the right job for Reese and his skills. He started as the greeter, standing next to the host or hostess and “giving people doughnut holes and saying ‘Welcome to Juno Beach Cafe! Would you like a doughnut hole?’” Anderson says.
While that task provided repetition, she says there were times “when someone veered off, like when they said ‘No thank you,’ and Reese said ‘Well, they’re very good! Would you like to try one?’ That didn’t register to him as an answer.”
So after a while, Anderson asked Brett if he thought Reese might do well pouring coffee and busing tables, inspiring the Carpenters to “take about two weeks at home pouring coffee.”
Even though those seem like easy, rote tasks, they have to be approached differently for a kid like Reese who breaks each portion of the task down, his father says. For instance, “just to pour the coffee, he has to think, ‘I have to deliver the coffee. I have to ask if they want decaf or regular.’ He has to pour it. He has to say excuse me, all of those things that come naturally to a typically performing kid.”
But he does them, well, and has the steps down to a science.
“Orange is the decaf, black is the normal,” Reese explains. “I just pour coffee, collect the breakfast when they’re done, and wipe off the tables. I don’t think it’s that big a deal. The faster I do it, the faster I move onto something else.”
As comfortable as Reese is there, much of that comfort thrives on a routine, and his parents being here as he works isn’t a normal part of that routine. As he walks nervously near their table, his mother acknowledges that “we drive him crazy, because it’s a change. It could be an adjustment.”
And when those adjustments happen, Reese has learned to roll with them. “He did take someone’s plate before they were finished eating, and they were a little taken aback,” says Anderson, who has seen some customers be slightly rude and impatient with Reese. But for the most part “they are very supportive, and he has fun doing his job. You can’t get upset with him, he’s so cute.”
Honsberger, Reese’s principal, says that his school places “strong emphasis on the vocational aspect” of their students’ educations, employing some in tasks at the school, and placing others in the community with various partners “in a job that meets their skills. We spend a lot time working with them, learning what they’re good at.”
Reese’s job came not through school but through his parents, who Honsberger calls “great advocates” who have given Reese some amazing opportunities. “The job has really helped with his social confidence. Putting him in these social situations (will make him) become more skilled in social interaction.”
From the time that Reese was diagnosed with Asperger’s, his parents, now both 58, adjusted their life and efforts to help him reach his potential. Angela quit her paralegal job and became a teaching assistant at a school for autism, to gain skills that her son might need when he reached school age, and to be an advocate for other parents. Their insistence on Reese’s growth and employment have led him to the present, where he’s a valued co-worker and customer favorite.
“When he first started working with us he was very hesitant about engaging with the staff and with the customers. You could tell he was a little nervous,” says Sue Eckert, who has waited tables at the Juno Beach Cafe for three years. “He’s grown into being very helpful and conscientious about what he does. He’s more confident and incredible to work with. He’s struggled but he’s really blossomed.”
Eckert says the whole atmosphere of the restaurant lends itself to “a spirit of generosity,” from owners Don and Mary Ann Ganim to Terri, “who is amazing with Reese,” to the customers.
“I remember when his father first brought him him to work, he would check to make sure that things were going well. Everyone is so gracious. I believe that when you put that spirit of generosity out, it comes back to you.”
The Carpenters expect Reese to continue working until he graduates high school, which should be when he is 21 years old. Already, they’ve begun looking for things he might be good at, including voice-over work. The most important thing, they say, is that he has a functional, happy future, with potential like anyone would want for their kids.
“We thanked Terri, and she said ‘He’s an employee. He works for me,’ like any other employee,” Angela says. “That meant so much to us, to hear that they think of him like anyone else.”