By Denise D. Resnik
This holiday season marked my husband’s 60th birthday. Rob insisted: no surprise parties or gifts. His choice: spending his Sunday birthday filling SMILE Biscotti holiday orders from across the country.
Rob had a very successful law career, yet it never produced the kind of personal gratification he’s experiencing today through SMILE. He’s been involved with every aspect of SMILE: developing the acronym (Supporting Matt’s Independent Living Enterprise), training and encouraging our employees, creating packaging systems, increasing sales through retail outlets such as Sprouts, training Matt’s coworkers, celebrating the team’s accomplishments and making sure everyone’s having fun!
Rob and I smile often when working with the SMILE team. Their progress is inspiring. Slade is now a master packager. One of Matt’s former high school classmates, Slade’s autism limits his expressive language, but the guys don’t need a lot of words to enjoy Uno during breaks. For Lauren, who is a young adult with Asperger’s, SMILE is an opportunity to be part of a team, make new friends through shared experiences and enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done–like cracking hundreds of eggs during one mixing session! Culley, who is still in high school, likes the precision of measuring ounces and grams, and building his resume of work experiences.
Eric, who Matt met through SARRC’s CommunityWorks® program and who has overcome many challenges with his autism, is SMILE’s first employee. And SMILE is Eric’s first employer. Eric attends community college, drives, is SMILE’s lead home baker and has been promoted twice! He’s also been a mentor for Matt.
As for Matt, SMILE has helped him increase his work stamina from 60 minutes to six hours. He serves as our best quality control checker, mixer and packer–and enjoys regular deliveries and trips to the store, food bank and ‘tootsie roll’ bank too.
These young adults represent the 500,000 youth with autism transitioning to adulthood this decade. According to Dr. Paul T. Shattuck, an associate professor in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and Drexel University School of Public Health, “so many of these young people have the potential to work and participate in their communities. Supporting this potential will benefit everyone – the person with autism, the family, employers and society.” Dr. Shattuck and his team report that sadly young adults with autism spectrum disorders have worse employment outcomes in the first few years after high school than do peers who have other types of disabilities.
According to Drexel’s National Autism Indicators Report, just over half (53.4 percent) of the young adults on the autism spectrum surveyed ever worked for pay outside the home within the first eight years after leaving high school. Only about one in five (20.9 percent) young adults with ASDs worked full-time at a current or most-recent job.
The SMILE team is helping change some unhappy statistics and reminding us that when we dream bigger, live our priorities, apply our heartfelt passion and work together—more wishes really do come true. Happy birthday, big daddy!
Denise is the founder and president of the marketing and communications firm, DRA Strategic Communications. She also serves as a member of the Arizona Community Foundation Board of Directors and member of the Arizona Advisory Board of BBVA Compass.
The mother of a 24-year-old son with autism, Denise is the founder, president and board chair of First Place AZ (www.firstplaceaz.org), a nonprofit dedicated to developing new, innovative housing options for adults with autism and other ‘special abilities,’ and the co-founder and board member emeritus of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC, www.autismcenter.org), an internationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to autism research, education and community outreach and the support of individuals with autism and their families throughout their lifetimes.
Other nonprofit leadership includes serving as a member of the Autism Speaks Housing Committee, Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism (AFAA) Leadership Council, National Association of Residential Providers for Adults with Autism (NARPAA) and the National Autism Transition Research Network Advisory Panel. Denise also served as a federally appointed member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) of the National Institutes of Health.