Three Chicago families confront the looming social crisis.
By Cassie Walker Burke
he peas must be sorted. On a recent Friday morning, several 20-something volunteers buzz around a North Shore basement that houses a food pantry for the needy. Pouya Bagherian, an outgoing young man who is prone to mistakenly throwing valuables into the trash, goes through bags of donations. Jason Kaplan, a quiet type who is most comfortable plugged into his iPod, checks each can of peas to make sure it has no puncture marks. And Frank Craven, who is slight and wears thick-rimmed glasses, organizes the cans on a shelf so that the earliest expiration dates are in front.
These tasks require an enthusiasm for repetition that many people would find mind numbing. Not these three. Bagherian and Kaplan, both 26, are autistic; Craven, also 26, has a rare autism-like condition called Lowe syndrome. Coming here lets them build real-world skills such as organization and teamwork, plus earn the satisfaction of a job well done. Equally important, it gives them a reason to get up in the morning.
Many autistic adults have a hard time finding their place in the world. Less than half enroll in higher education or find work. (According to the Social Security Administration, only about 6 percent of adults with autism work full-time.) Many lack the skills to live alone. Those who cannot work generally qualify for monthly Social Security disability payments, which are too low to cover vocational coaches, therapeutic day programs, or other interventions that may help an autistic person reach a modicum of self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, the federal government does not require school systems to provide special education for students older than 18 (most states, including Illinois, have extended the requirement through age 21). “If you have a developmental disability like Frank, when you turn 22, you disappear,” says Craven’s mother, Jane Gallery, a 61-year-old Winnetka resident. “You fall off a cliff.”