HAAPE CEO Larry Rothman discusses helping people with autism find employment.
(30 minutes) Lawrence J Rothman, PhD is Board Chairman and CEO of HAAPE (Helping Adults with Autism Perform & Excel). The mission of HAAPE is to build and maintain a community of employment support for adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We work together to create and implement innovative approaches in education, development and support to address autism’s unique challenges for sustaining employment.
For more on HAAPE: haape.org
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Introducing Lawrence J Rothman, PhD of HAAPE
HACKIE REITMAN MD (HR): Hi! Welcome to another episode of “Exploring Different Brains”. I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman, and today we have with us a very happy fellow. Larry why don’t you introduce yourself.
LARRY ROTHMAN Ph D (LR): Sure. I’m Larry Rothman. I’m the co-founder of organization called HAAPE. Thank you for calling me happy at HAAPE. Happy Hackie, Hackie Happy. [Laughs.]
LR: HAAPE stands for Helping Adults with Autism Perform and Excel and I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished, and we’ll talk a bit about that today. What else do I tell you about me?
HR: Tell me how the heck you got into this neurodiversity. How’d you do it?
LR: So, it started about 4 years ago. I’m a very avid tennis player and one afternoon after finishing some good tennis, one of my partners sat 3 or 4 of us down and talked about his son who has autism and what it meant to him. His son was 20 years old and he was telling us in two years he be graduating from high school and then there’d be nothing for him to do. And his thought was that he would start a foundation to make people happy, hence our name. And his idea was to play tennis, to teach them to play tennis, and to cook, and to dance and to play yoga. Sounded great to me. He said that he would like to be the founder and that I would be the president because of my background, blah blah blah… I thought this was terrific. I didn’t know much about Autism at all, but gee it was a way to help people and I was thrilled. So, one of the fellas who I’m friends is a friend with Michael Alessandri who is the executive director of the University of Miami Center of Autism and Related Disabilities, and he was able to arrange a meeting. I wanted to meet with Michael so that we could kind of discuss whether this made sense, and how it would move forward and get his advice.
Well the meeting went less than stellar because all Michael did was kind of do this, shook his head, shook his head about everything we said, and being on top of my game I said to him, “I gather this is not a good idea” And he said yes. And thank goodness for that because I asked him point-blank, “What do we do? If this isn’t the right thing, what is the right thing?”. And he said, “Are you aware that unemployment and underemployment for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and that’s what we focus on, is in the range of 80-90%, probably closer to 90% than 80%. And if you could do anything in the area of employment that would make a heck of a lot more sense than doing things that other people are doing, and that frankly gives you a lot of liability exposure. It seemed like really good advice, just to end the meeting he threw in, “You might want to also to create a job board strictly for people with autism”. So, this was one of those things where you go, “Okay… what now?” Well make a long story short, the guy who was founder wanted none of this he wanted to do what he wanted to do and there was no way the twain was going to be, he left, this is 3 or 4 weeks into the organization.
I’m thinking, wow this is a really important thing to do, I can’t let this go and so we started thinking about what to do. And I got to tell you Hackie, I think the entire history of our organization is spiritual or divine providence, because in this same club where we play tennis, one of the marketing people introduces me to a woman named Maria Jacobo. She was married to extraordinarily famous Hall of Fame pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and they together had two sons, one of them now 21 years old is on the spectrum and the other one three years younger, is the kind of ball player his father was. This is a perfect combination, I knew it was going to be, but it worked out really well. The reason it worked out so well, is the mom her name is Maria kept watching her son play baseball and he played baseball at a very high level obviously. I believe their high school was number three in the nation and we had the idea, before I get further, that one of the employment things that we would do is for my technology center I had done some research and found this organization called Aspiritech outside of Chicago, who were using, not using, but employing people on the spectrum to do software testing and quality assurance and it just seemed like a great idea.
And so, Maria thought it was a great idea too, potentially for her son. So, she was all excited. One day when she, when her son was playing ball and she was watching him, one of the directors from another organization United Community Options, many people would know that as United Cerebral Palsy and she were talking and Maria told this woman what we’re thinking of doing, and wow, the woman says, “My God we’d like to do that with you”. So, all of a sudden, we’re now hooked up with an organization that’s business for 70-years in supported employment and in supported housing who have a desire to do the same thing we do, and they have a campus. So, the combination really started to click. It took us several months we came up with a teaming agreement. UCO was very generous. They provided us with a physical space, and some in-kind donation. Together we went to Aspiritech up in Highland Park Illinois, four of us, the executive director of UCO, our director of employment, another fella who’s a technologist, who is on our board, and myself, armed with 52 questions for a Aspiritech on how to make this thing work. Well, never thinking that they would ever answer all the questions, we spent the better part of all day, 8 hours, with both of the co-founders who shared everything they knew about this and we were totally inspired. What were we inspired about, because we saw what they were doing, we saw that they had blue chip companies who were their clients, we saw all the provisions they did for their people who work with them? It was more of a social friendly environment than the typical workplace, although they were doing some great work with some great clients and I was determined that they and we and UCO would go together. Well little did we realize what a chore that would be. It turns out that they shared with us, Aspiritech did, that they get requests to team up every single week, maybe even more than one.
LR: Yea, I was surprised by that Hackie. And we put together a valued proposition and a business plan for them about how we would work together and in the end their board approved it and they have been terrific partners of ours since the last two-and-a-half years. We actually signed a second two-year teaming agreement with them. They came down to Fort Lauderdale to help us get the center started. Their chief technology got the number two guy in the organization. They provided us with the better part of 17,000 documents to put on our server on how everything is done, and, in the end, we were able to create this thing. We came up with the name Spectrum Tech for obvious reasons, we couldn’t be a Aspiritech Junior, and we’re dealing with people on the spectrum. So Spectrum Tech was born. We hired a tester and we started creating our own training program based on what Aspiritech did. We as HAAPE became the advisory board of this joint venture. We provided pretty significant seed, seed money that we had raised and voila, fast forward, and we have now conducted 4 trainings for our custom software testing environment. We have several of the graduates working at Spectrum Tech itself, employed being paid, not internships, being paid to do work and the kind of work they’re doing is website analysis. They’re doing software testing and they’re scoping out fairly significant testing jobs for a couple of the major companies within the Fort Lauderdale area. So that’s a long way of telling you, that’s how we got to our first program.
Helping People With Autism Get Jobs
HR: H.A.A.P.E, H-A-A-P-E.
LR: H.A.A.P.E, Helping Adults with Autism Perform and Excel. A 501(c)(3). 98% of the funds we raise go to programs, very few, very few charities can say that. We’re an all-volunteer organization We have almost no overhead.
HR: Fabulous. What a fabulous, fabulous story. Now, what have you found Larry to be the biggest stumbling block to more people on the Spectrum getting jobs?
LR: That’s a, that’s a very complicated question because it’s not single dimensional. Let’s take the various stakeholders and talk about them each in order. Employers, people who actually can give people on the spectrum jobs, they’re accustomed to a process of recruiting that is absolutely non-conducive to people on the Spectrum. It’s a high-pressure environment for them. They don’t know what’s coming at them. It’s unstructured. Interviews simply aren’t the best way for people on the spectrum to perform. The second problem with employers is they don’t know how they will cope with people who have this disability, if you want to call it a disability. I think it’s a specific advantage, but in the other part of the world people don’t see it that way. The third thing is, there have been some great examples of people on the Spectrum performing absolutely outstanding work. For example, and there have been several large companies that have realized this, JPMorgan I believe has upwards of 50 people with Autism Spectrum Disorder working in various parts of the organization. In fact, they have an executive director who oversees this program. He is reported in Forbes magazine that the productivity increase, on average, of those people is over 48% compared with Neurotypicals.
LR: It’s incredible. And it’s not, he’s not alone. In our own backyard, you may know Marty Kiar, who is the Broward County Property Appraiser. He has a staff of a couple hundred people who do property appraising. Not our favorite thing to pay those taxes but a necessary evil. Marty brought in 8 interns and hired one of them and that intern, according to the HR Director at the Broward County Property Assessor is one of the highest productivity people in his office, and unlike how other employers view what might be, they’re, they’re astounded I would say to know that this person doesn’t really need much help. In fact, he doesn’t need any help he just keeps saying what’s next, what’s next, what’s next, and he’s the perfect example of people on the Spectrum, if you give them a job that’s well defined and somewhat repetitive, totally excel, hence our name excel. So that’s the employer piece. Employers need to be educated, employers need to have the experience and employers need to be trained. The next problem is what specific skill sets are best suited for people on the Spectrum. So, we know, for example, that structure is a very important part of it. Written instructions are very important. The idea of repetitive tasks is important. And I’ll give you an example of that, and it’s from far afield. The Israeli Defense Forces have a unit called the 9900. You may or may not know that his Israel conscripts almost all their young people, the exception being the highly religious, although I think that’s changing and at that point neurodiverse people. Well somebody came up with the brilliant idea that since these people have such intense focus and have such structure, it would be ideal in military intelligence.
And so, what they’ve got is, I don’t know how large the group is but it’s significant, who will read the intelligence maps that their fighters go out or reconnaissance planes go out on a rather daily basis and they look for the changes. They look for the minute changes, and it’s brilliant, it’s just a brilliant piece of their talents. So, finding the right job, pretty important. And then there are the parents. Believe it or not the parents of people with autism who are very, very well meaning and very dedicated and have the most difficult job of anybody I can imagine, tend to shelter their people. They try to, they’re so concerned that they become helicopter parents without trying to be and so it’s, it’s a problem for them to let go. And I understand the problem but it’s an issue that they have to, to let their children, their adult children thrive in their own world. And then the final issue is the people with Autism Spectrum themselves. We have several psychologists on our advisory board, and they tell us that here we are, providing a number of different opportunities for relatively high paying jobs for people with Autism. And they’re naive in the ways of the world they should get snookered by scam artists. They don’t know about spending money; they don’t know about saving money. There are lots of courses about hygiene and how to look people in the eye, which I think is an unnatural event for people who don’t look people in the eyes, but that’s my thinking. And so that becomes a problem. In any event, our focus is to say, “Look, we’re going to create opportunities for employment. We’re going to fund those opportunities and we’re going to nurture those opportunities”. That’s the model we have.
Now what we do is then we find the UCO’s of the world, people who want to operate these programs, and they do work brilliantly. Give me another example Hackie. Again, just out of sheer luck I belong to an organization you’ve probably heard of, the Broward Nonprofit Executive Alliance, where there are any number of CEOs of the various charities in Broward County who meet monthly, it’s a very interesting meeting because it’s an exchange of ideas. Well every single meeting we have to introduce each other because it’s never the same 20-25 people. So, one meeting about 6 months ago, we go, we’re in this big U-shaped table. The woman who is the executive vice president of Broward college introduces herself… And then they come to me, “Hi, I’m Larry Rothman, the president of Helping Adults with Autism…” This woman almost went across the table, and as perceptive as I was, after the meeting was over, I went up to her, introduced myself and I said, “I noticed that you had more than causal interest and I don’t think it’s cause I’m good looking”.
LR: So, she goes on to explain that she thought that there would be an interesting match between Broward College and we, and specifically in the area of aviation. Now a very obvious thing, but she was a real visionary about it. She was very kind, introduced us to the Dean of the Transportation Studies Division the Broward College, guy named Russell McCaffery, who is an equal visionary to this woman.
HR: Who is the woman, do you have her name?
LR: Nancy Wilson something… Donoghue maybe. But she, I really thank her because she arranged this. Russ and I started talking, he immediately got it. He says, “You know what would really make sense? Okay what? Avionics, avionics.” Avionics is the repair of the electronics in a cockpit, whether it be radar, or the audio-visual system, or the compass, or all these, the, everything that the plane needs to go in the air. And most the equipment is very expensive, and if you’d flown, you probably haven’t flown recently, you’ve probably encountered a mechanic coming out with a little thing in his hand. About 5 minutes later he’s leaving with another thing in his hand. And if you’re incognizant you’d know they’re not exactly the same, but those things can cost anywhere from 5$ to 100,000$. And they are probably are repairable. Well, Broward college teaches people how to repair those Avionics. And again, it’s the perfect environment for somebody with Autism, because you go through a checklist. It’s boom, boom, boom. Its structured, it’s tested, and if this works you do this, and if it doesn’t work you do that, and it turns out prior to COVID-19, the demand was insane. In fact, to the point where Russ said to me, if we get this thing going for people with Autism, he believes that either Boeing and/or Airbus would sponsor the program.
LR: Yeah, it’s because, it is the rate stopping thing from them being able to sell enough airplanes. Getting them repaired quickly enough and with a high enough quality. And so, Russ, we worked together for a month or two and then we brought in our friends from the University of Miami Center of Autism and Related disabilities to see if the program, the workplace they have, what is conducive to people with Autism. Not too bright, not too noisy. Did the professors really understand what the needs of the people were, and they were, the people from CARD were brilliant. They sat in on the classes to figure out what was going on. They held instruction for the professors and for us to understand how to deal with people with Autism and in August of this year, of last year rather, we enrolled our first students in the class.
HR: Wow, congratulations!
LR: What’s really interesting about that is simultaneously we went around to some of the Avionics shops who knew they were in Broward County or Miami, turns out that the coroner is one of three in the United States that does this. So, there are literally half a dozen to a dozen shops within 15 miles of Broward College at the North Perry Airport, who are clamoring for a graduate, so much so that one of our advisory board members took us to one. I won’t give you the name because it’s a competitive disadvantage to them, in Doral, and we toured his place, he toured Broward College’s program and said, “This is a homerun, I will take anybody who graduates from your program with Autism Spectrum Disorder” CARD is going in to the shop to teach the workers and the management how to deal with people with autism. The starting salary for people, just apprentices is around $18 an hour, and it can go up to 35$ or $40, now it’s a real career. The guy loves so much what was going on he went back to his headquarters, a 5 billion dollar company and he got us scholarship, so we can put more people into the Broward College Avionics program and he also got a paid internship, so that between semesters of the spring semester program, the students in the program could go and actually work. So, it’s a brilliant program, it’s the first of its kind in America. We’re hoping that we can just kind of build a template of this thing and send it out to other places, because it’s ideal and now we’re in conversation about doing the analog in the marine industry and the automotive industry to this avionics deal. And we’re targeting for January of next year to have those two programs up and running.
LR: Yeah. So good stuff, good stuff. The right people, a lot of luck, and a lot of dedication.
More About HAAPE
HR: How do people learn more about you and your organization?
LR: That’s pretty easy. We have a website www.haape.org. In there is our, our contact information. My email is L.Rothman@HAAPE.Org. Send me an email and I’ll call you back if you want to talk. And for those who listen to this and want to become part of our organization we’re obviously growing pretty quickly. We’ve got some interesting conversations going on and I’d be happy to entertain those thoughts.
HR: What advice would you have for parents of someone who is autistic?
LR: I’m probably going to sound like a heathen to them, a real heathen. Your child is not as limited as you might think. Your child has a lot of capability. Your child has a lot of potential. Yes, your child needs support. Your child needs assistance. Let them go free to the world. Let them try. Don’t limit them would be my advice. Talk to people like us, talk to people like you. There are lots of organizations who could help. Keep doing a great job that you’re doing as a parent. It’s probably as I said before one of the most difficult jobs there is, because it’s incessant.
HR: Larry tell us about the team who helped you to make all of this possible.
LR: Right so we have a, our construct makes us look like a larger organization than we are, but it’s needed. So, we have a board and several of the people are just amazing in terms of how they want to contribute and what they do. We have a CFO named Rich Bentley. Rich is the most diligent human being I’ve ever met my life. He’s reliable, he’s on time, he’s on top and he’s brilliant. And he keeps us on the straight and narrow, because we get ideas like crazy about what we want to do and Rich always kind of says let’s do this. I’ve talked about Maria she’s an inspiration. Her sons an inspiration to us. We have a couple, couple of friends of ours who split their time between South Florida and Chicago area, Bonnie and Harvey Gaffen. They started a foundation 40 years ago called couple The Les Turner ALS Foundation. Their story alone is a worthy story. They raised almost 75 million dollars to support ALS. They are magnificent fundraisers. They’ve been generous and terms of sharing some of their people who have helped fund our organization. We have a guy who has just joined us who is a real businessman, his name is Jim Foley. Jim just, is the kind of guy Hackie, that you’ve got a question, you’ve got to bounce something off of, Jim’s got the answer, Jim’s full of creativity. Jim wants to grow this organization horizontally, vertically and diagonally. And we’ve got four people on our Professional Advisory Board who are just amazing. Julia Harper, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that name, from, gee, why am I, why I’m forgetting her organization, but Julia Harper is amazing. She believes in neuroplasticity of the brain, regeneration.
Katia Moritz who is one of the foremost most people in the world on neurodiversity in general, has very large practice. We’ve got a bunch of fundraisers who just focus on getting us money so we can fuel this party. And so, the organization, there are many others I am leaving out of many, many, many but those are top-of-mind right now. Julia’s organization is called TheraPeeds. Little slow at the brain. So, we work as a team, there’s no question about it. There’s several of us who are the core of the team, but the team is everywhere and anywhere. It’s amazing what we’ve got, and we’ve put together. All these people don’t take a penny. They’re all volunteers and that’s what’s amazing. What strikes me is the four professionals certainly have access to people with autism. Maria has somebody with autism in her family. And Rich has a grandson with Autism. Out of our 18 board and advisory board members, less than a third have anything directly involving them or their family with autism. Everybody else is doing this because they think it’s so important and it’s miraculous.
HR: What a great, great organization, great board you have. You’re doing terrific things, because let’s face it employment is where the rubber meets the road.
LR: Right. Employment is where self-esteem occurs. Employment is where independence occurs. Employment is where you no longer are on, at the mercy of the government. You’re becoming a regular human being.
HR: Thank goodness for HAAPE. H.A.A.P.E. And for you Larry Rothman. Keep up the great work. Thank you so much for being with us today.
LR: Thank you! And you Hackie Reitman. Keep up the great work. Talk to ya!