Unpacking autism: Organization changes the way businesses think about hiring

Evan Friedman at RHW. (Photo: ABC7's Jay Korff)

RHW Surplus Sales in Gaithersburg began in owner Rich Weiss’s garage.

“We sell tools and accessories and repair parts on the internet,” says Weiss.

This life-long entrepreneur also knew in order to excel in the digital age he had to hire reliable employees who thrive at things like counting, labeling and packing.

Weiss adds, “Having employees that care about the business, they are not just here for a paycheck, is critical.”

If there’s an employee here who believes in getting it right it’s Evan Friedman.

“I like having everything perfect pretty much,” says the 30-year-old Friedman who helps manage inventory. He also has the work ethic of three people and the mind of a computer processor.

Friedman, while organizing a box of parts, says, “We get things in from a 100 different places. And I have to make sure it comes from the right place and it’s the right thing.”

Weiss tells us before Evan was hired inventory numbers were routinely off but since Evan developed a routine that problem has vanished.

“So I gave him the job of looking for problems. It’s going great,” says Weiss.

Evan is one of several employees at RHW who brings to the job a unique set of strengths and challenges. Evan is on the autism spectrum.

“You can dress the way you want and be the way you want. Rich doesn’t mind as long as you do the right work. It’s like I don’t feel any pressure coming in here. I like coming in here,” says Friedman.

Evan arrived here more than a year ago thanks to Tom Liniak with JSSA, a renowned social services agency based in the DC area.

Liniak says, “All of progress and innovation in the history of the world has been people who looked at things differently.”

JSSA assesses, trains and finds sustainable jobs for people with disabilities.

“We have a retention rate at the six month mark of over 90 percent,” says Liniak.

In fact, when JSSA pairs the right employee with the right job the worker often surpasses all expectations.

“I started out not so good but lately I’ve been 95 out of 100, doing well,” says Friedman.

Weiss adds, “We’re family. When you come here you are family. So, everybody in my family has issues so what’s a few more, laughs.”

In a sense, kinship is why they are here.

Liniak says, “John has certainly been the inspiration for all of this. There is no question.

Liniak’s son John is also autistic. For Liniak, the focus has always been to help his son realize and reach his potential.

“John has become, and quite proud of, a proficient swimmer. He’s on the swim team. John has become a proficient runner. He’s run 5K's. We’ve run side-by-side. Some of the proudest moments of my life,” says Liniak while fighting back tears.

Like all parents, the hope is to lead your child to independence. But with autonomy comes the opportunity for risk.

For the first time in Evan’s work experience the unpredictable pendulum of life swung back.

When we first spoke with Evan the shelves at RHW were full. Several weeks later they were nearly bare.

Weiss says, “We just had to shrink the business and a number of people went and Evan was just one of them. It’s a shame and I’ll really miss him.”

“Thank you for everything Rich. It’s been a pleasure,” says Friedman.

We returned to RHW on Evan’s last day. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone, anywhere, who handled losing a job with as much class as Evan Friedman.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity. If you ever need anything. It all came as a shock. One week we were good the next week everything was done. I didn’t have any experience much and it turned out to be very helpful. I want to stay here a lot longer if we could,” says Friedman.

The hardest part for Evan isn’t merely in the leaving, but in the breaking of a routine he believed in.

Friedman says, “Just realizing, oh you don’t have anything to do for that day you’re not there. It will take a little while to get used to, I know that.”

Evan says while it’s hard to walk away from a place where he felt like he belonged, he now has the confidence and experience to get another job.

And JSSA already has a few leads for him.

Update on Evan’s job search: Evan is now working part-time at a local grocery store. He had a job interview the week of July 3 for a full-time, benefited position and is waiting to hear back. Three other employers are considering interviewing Evan in the coming weeks. We will keep you updated on his progress.

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