As a parent, it’s natural to be a tad fearful for your child’s firsts—their first steps, first day of school, first outing with their friends. For Jeanmarie Beno, Plano mom of four, one of her worries was finding that first job for her son Joseph, who has autism. “My greatest fears about finding a job for Joseph were that he would be treated unfairly, get picked on or bullied on the job,” she recalls.
Beno began looking for a job for Joseph when he was 16; they first tried Kroger, as it was a place Joseph was familiar with—he grew up shopping there with his mom. “He got dressed up nicely, including a tie, and we did not tell them about his autism, but I imagine they picked up on it,” she says. “He was hired and ended up working for them for four and a half years.”
Joseph joined a group called Austen’s Autistic Adventures, founded by Jamie Wheeler, whose daughter Austen also has autism. The group takes young adults (age 16 and up) who are on the spectrum to job sites and local businesses throughout Dallas-Fort Worth, with the goal of improving their social skills so they are more employable. It was through this group that Joseph, now 23, found a corporate job doing office support work; he recently celebrated his first anniversary there.
ROAD TO SUCCESS
Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) tend to shine in service roles. Opened in 2017, Bridget’s Pet Resort in Colleyville hires high-functioning adults with special needs such as autism. Founders Frank and Christine Goeyvaerts began the pet care facility to create opportunities for their son Frankie, who has autism, and others like him. Tasks for employees include taking care of the dogs and cleaning. Christine says the work is ideal for people with autism, as dogs thrive on a structure, and her employees typically work well on a structure, too. “They are fantastic with the dogs,” she says. “Folks with autism love rules.” Joseph has succeeded in his office support role for similar reasons. “He does not mind doing routine, repetitive tasks,” Beno says.
Moreover, a major component of any job is friendliness, a trait that Tom Landis, founder of Dallas ice cream shop Howdy Homemade, says comes naturally to young adults with some disabilities, including Down syndrome. “God seems to have replaced their egos and pride with smiles and humility,” he shares. Howdy Homemade employs adults with diagnoses ranging from Down syndrome to autism “and everyone in between,” says Landis. His goal is for his employees to thrive in the workplace and beyond. “[Here] they learn customer service and how to work as a team,” he shares. “Our goal is for them to not be mascots but managers and eventually franchisees.” Landis has found that his employees pay attention to specifics and rules that a typical employee might miss. “Many employees might think something like, ‘I know I should wash my hands after changing the trash can, but I’m too busy,’” he says. “But those with special needs are going to follow rules.”
Howdy Homemade recently partnered with Central Market to offer ice cream in stores. This partnership also provides more jobs. “Our goal is to create about 8–10 jobs for those with special needs at each Central Market,” Landis shares. “With 10 Central Markets throughout Texas, that’s about 100 jobs!” Other companies in Dallas-Fort Worth seem to be catching on to the value of employees with IDD, including Goodwill Industries of Dallas, Kroger, Walgreens and Market Street.
FORWARD THROUGH FEAR
Despite Beno’s initial fears, she shares excitement about her son’s corporate job, which she says he has grown in. “The biggest gains I have seen have been social ones,” she says. “He has learned to get along with all kinds of people.” Beno’s best advice for parents is to become exposed to the various opportunities in your community—they are out there. She says it’s a job in itself trying to find a job your child—“lots of role playing to get ready for interviews, getting along with bosses, co-workers and customers, etc.”—but a rewarding one, nonetheless. “Most of all,” she says, “don’t be afraid to just straight out ask about employing their kid, like I did!”