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Virginia program aims to help autistic adults find employment

(Photo: AP Images)

For adults who have autism, finding employment can be tough.

Conditions such as communication deficits and poor fine motor skills present significant challenges for working most jobs. And many of the resources for people with autism are geared toward children.

A recent study from the Drexel University Autism Institute found that only 14 percent of adults with autism have paying jobs by their mid-20s.

The Virginia Institute of Autism wants to do something about that.

This summer, VIA launched VIAble Ventures, a program aimed at providing meaningful employment to Central Virginia adults on the autism spectrum. The idea is to start businesses that are designed from the ground up for employing adults with motor skill or other functional challenges.

The first venture, a candle-making business, is getting set to launch. Greg Pitsenberger, VIAble program director, developed the idea with the help of the 10-week Incubator Program at the University of Virginia i.Lab, where entrepreneurs receive support and flesh out business ideas.

Pitsenberger has spent the summer working on the equipment employees will use at VIA to make the candles. Everything has been tailored so adults with varying skill sets can work on the process. And employees won't just work in production — there are also jobs in delivery and marketing.

Training is about to begin, and soon all 15 of the adult clients at VIA, located in Albemarle County, will be making candles for pay.

"The challenges our adult clients face are pretty severe," said Larry Garretson, VIA's director of communications. "Behavioral challenges, communication challenges, physical mobility challenges. There's a reason why unemployment is such a huge problem for people with autism. It's because nobody has taken the time to do this kind of work and create opportunities for them."

VIA hopes that a pioneering project like this can help similar ones get started across the country.

"It's going to take some structure, support and training to do this," Garretson said. "It's going to take some tracking of error rates and the amount of time our workers are able to spend on certain tasks. This becomes data we'll have about these folks if they want to enter the larger job market. If we find other businesses that want to hire people with autism, we can give them data on how long the training takes and what the challenges are."

Each candle produced at VIA has a QR code on the bottom that can be scanned on a smartphone. Scanning it immediately pulls up a video of the person who made the candle introducing him or herself. It's a small touch that VIA hopes will get the community to embrace the handmade candles.

VIA is partnering with more than a dozen local shops and wineries that will carry the candles once production begins. It also is making the candle production facility mobile, by putting the main table on wheels. That way, VIA can set up production during special events at wineries, crafting custom candles for sale on the spot.

This will be the first formal job for many of the adults, complete with paychecks and a clock to punch in and out with. But the project has larger goals than just providing employment.

"It's great that they're getting employment for the first time of their life," said Pitsenberger. "But we're also teaching skills that will be transferable. Once someone can stack in production, they can stack their dishes at home. Everything we're getting out of this is great, but the main goal is to provide a better quality of life."

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