Increasing autism in the workforce

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By: Abby Walton | WCTV Eyewitness News
May 17, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- Making connections through conversation, selling your skills and going through a resume; all things that happen at job fairs.

It's a part of life most of us experience. However, for a growing part of our population, finding a job isn't so easy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 59 children are now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The disorder mainly impacts social and communication skills, which can make social interactions, speech and even eye contact more difficult.

All these things also play a large part in getting a job.

Experts say around 80 percent of adults on the autism spectrum are currently underemployed or unemployed. That’s even if they have a high intelligence and good education.

But in Tallahassee, a local business is trying to create a recipe of success for those living on the spectrum.

Cooking, much like running a business, isn’t an exact science.

But Paisley Cafe owner Kiersten Lee will tell you, creating something special involves the right ingredients and people

Cooking grits and smoked sausage sparked a friendship years ago between Kiersten and Kevin Graham.

“The first few times meeting Kevin, there was really no interaction, no eye contact really," Kiersten said.

Living on the autism spectrum, Kevin will tell you he wasn't always a social butterfly.

“Normally I get shy,” Kevin said.

However, his love of Paisley and the language of cooking broke the barriers.

“He would come in and I would introduce him to everyone. The staff fell in love with Kevin immediately and that's when it all changed,” Kiersten said.

Out of that friendship, Kevin was offered job to join the staff.

It’s something Kiersten knew was right for her business, but wasn’t sure if others would understand.

“Ultimately my fears for him, it wasn't fair for me to be afraid for him. He can handle himself. Kevin is very, very capable of dealing with that and I had to trust him,” Kiersten said.

Tapping into this growing talent pool is something Allison Leatzow, an autism consultant at the Center for Autism Related Disabilities at FSU, hopes more businesses will do.

"It's breaking that traditional mold of everybody has to fit into a certain box in order to do their job," Allison said.

Allison says the expense of autism on society is large.

With many, like Kevin, now old enough and wanting to work, it's up to businesses to figure out how to make that happen.

“Can they do the job? That's what's most important. Can they do the job, and if they need some supports or accommodations, can they still do the job with those in place and if they can, it sounds like you have a pretty good employee, Allison said.

More than a year later, Kevin is now one of the first people to greet you.

Besides taking orders, he also runs the cash register with the help of his teammates.

He also goes into the kitchen to perfecting his true love, baking.

Kevin's Oreo truffles now helping raise money for Autism Cooks, a non-profit started by Kiersten, Kevin and friends to help other local restaurants employ people on the spectrum.

“There's a correlation that I've been able to see over the last six years between culinary, love and autism. We were able to see firsthand exactly what it has done for Kevin,” Kiersten said.

At 28-years old, Kevin says he has big plans for his future.

"I would love to start my own business, baking with Autism Cooks, where the customers come into the shop and try all different kinds of desserts,” Kevin said.

A new recipe that, years ago, Kiersten and Kevin could never imagine happening.

But after finding the perfect ingredients of love, patience and support, the end result is looking like sweet success.

With Autism Cooks, Kiersten and her staff are really passionate about bringing this philosophy to other restaurants. They say if someone is interested in learning more, stop by and hang out at Paisley for a day.

If you’d like to learn more about Autism Cooks, you can head to their Facebook page.

Also, you can order Kevin’s truffles by calling Paisley Café at 850-385-7268. A dozen is $25 and the proceeds go towards Autism Cooks.

Also, if you’d like to learn about all the services FSU CARD has to offer, click here.

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