Photo: The Washington Post
Tom Whalen is a friendly man from Maryland. He makes quick friends with strangers and loves to talk. He is pretty good at convincing employers to give him a chance at employment, and is fully willing to put in the effort needed to hold down a job.
But he has a problem. He loses his jobs shortly after gaining them. He has autism spectrum disorder and his employers often do not know how to properly engage with him.
A rough beginning
When Tom was born, the doctors knew something wasn't quite right. No, this was not an unusually early diagnosis of autism. He had a heart defect. But it soon became apparent that he was having difficulties that did not relate to his heart condition. Toilet training took much longer than the parents thought it should have. He also preferred to play by himself in preschool and in kindergarten.
His kindergarten teacher watched him and had an idea. She went to his parents and suggested autism as an explanation for these behaviors. It was in fact, correct.
School, order, and disorder
The rest of his school life saw him undergo a special education because of his autism diagnosis.
The school and his parents did their best to give him a good education. They found learning strategies which worked for him; Tom could perform math in his head quite easily. Teachers want you to show your work. He was not sure how.
His educators persevered and math became a strong point rather than a weakness, which sometimes happens to other people who cannot get as good a level of care while being educated. He had personalized assistance when necessary, a healthy structure for his life, safety at school, and even a comfortable amount of socialization. Tom says he ate lunches at “the reject table,” but otherwise school was a positive experience for him.
But when high school ended with his graduation, much of that fell away.
Even his parents knew that he would not flourish without that healthy-yet-rigid structure. “I was scared to death,” said his mother, Sue Whalen.
School had been a good thing, right? Tom tried to continue that goodness by going to a community college. That did not work out nearly as well as high school. He lacked the personal assistance and enforced schedule of high school. Since he was free to choose to skip classes, he did so, often spending time in the library instead.
It was not long before he dropped out of college.
In a world without goals
At first, Tom enjoyed living at home with no schedule and no goals. Regarding this time period, he said, “At that point, I realized I have a bit of a wild streak.” He became a fan of Star Wars as well as other media. But he was not content to just stay at home. He wandered. Far.
He would load up his backpack with supplies and walk into the city. With no goal for his walk, he would wander downtown Baltimore. For the most part he enjoyed it, though it made his parents scared for his life on occasion.
Especially since he would get lost, would be unable to find his way home on his own, and would purposefully ignore his cell phone. Being lost meant being in trouble and he did not want to get in trouble with his parents.
That is something we can all relate to.
One time while on a walk, he was mugged. This almost sent his mother into a nervous breakdown.
By now, his parents had turned to Maryland’s Developmental Disabilities Administration for help. But the waiting list had been two years. After the mugging, Sue called the DDA and explained that she did not think they could wait the full two years.
The DDA upgraded Tom’s case to “crisis” status, allowing his parents to seek help immediately. They started to look for day programs to occupy Tom’s day. Most of the options were disappointing.
Most of the day programs were more like nursing homes than a place where Tom could flourish. Others focused on disabilities rather than autism, also unsuitable for Tom. He was capable; he just needed structure.
Eventually, they found Itineris. This day program focused on helping people with autism. In fact, it was created for other parents who had children with autism. Itineris provided everything Tom was currently lacking: socialization, life skills, and help finding a job.
Unusual workplace troubles
Tom has a problem working with the public and with neurotypical bosses.
His mother said, “He can get a job.” His father, Ed, continued for her, “The problem is maintaining them.”
His autism, unlike other disorders or disabilities, gives no physical cues to the public that he is neurodivergent.
This meant that people who did not know Tom held him to a different standard than he was able to uphold. His bosses would often receive complaints about him. They were harmless things, such as biting his fingernails at work, but customers can be fickle and wary of those they hold as different.
His chattiness also cost him at the workplace. Tom loves talking with people, but like most people with autism, he has difficulty reading social cues. He also has much less of a filter than other people, and can sometimes have trouble judging whether or not his statements are appropriate.
Sometimes they were not, which also cost him a job or two.
He also has trouble understanding whether or not his crushes on female coworkers were requited or not. By the time he figured it out, it is often too late, and he has made his coworker uncomfortable.
This filter also extended to his phone. His parents “had to limit his phone use, because he’d get somebody’s phone number and call them 20 times a day and text them,” according to Ed. He even once sent “10,000 texts in a month.”
These are not faults of Tom’s morality, but are a consequence of his developmental disorder affecting his ability to read social cues. Still, he wants to work. Tom said he has three goals for working: money, independence, and “to do something to fill the void.”
Ami Taubenfeld, who is the executive director of Itineris, thinks that work is important for all people. She believes it can bring meaning to their days.
Thanks to the efforts of Itineris, Tom has found steady employment. It took a long time to get there, but he eventually found where he could fit in. “It’s a run-of-the-mill cleaning job, but my boss is awesome,” he said. That work is janitorial work alongside an Itineris employee. The employee keeps him on task as he empties trash cans and cleans tables.
His parents think that work is ideal. He has people to talk with and someone keeping him on task, but is not around them enough for his lack of a filter to cause trouble.
It is also not his only job.
He has found his dream job, though this one is not something he can perform weekly. He is an autism advocate, a position he is uniquely qualified for as someone on the spectrum who also loves interacting with other people.
Several times a month he gives speeches on what it is like to live with autism. He also engages in training sessions. You can even find him on YouTube. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mg5Uq4I1q4)
The janitorial job pays his bills, but being an autism advocate gives his life purpose. The extra spending money is nice too.
Especially since he also finally found a partner. She is also on the spectrum. Their favorite hangout spot is the mall.
Tom’s story had a fair few hiccups along the way. A highly-sociable person with autism is not quite usual, and that combination has caused him a fair amount of trouble thanks to his inability to fully understand social cues and personal boundaries.
But eventually he managed to turn that around thanks to the help of his parents and Itineris, an autism support center.
His parents are worried about how he will be able to support himself once they are gone, but Itineris is looking to put together a residential program. Unlike a nursing home, it will allow Tom and other folks with autism the ability to have a safe home where they can flourish.