Open Office

BEFORE BEN HIRASUNA showed up for the first job interview of his life, he went for weeks at a time without leaving his parents’ home in Santa Monica. Outside, sun poured down; inside, he looked at the top of his forearm and noticed it was every bit as pale as its underside. To say Hirasuna is shy is to say the ocean is big — it captures nothing of the vastness of the feeling. He managed to attend college at Arizona State for just over a year but returned home for good in November 2017. For a few months, he took some classes at a local community college, but eventually his routine gave way to solitude at home. During the day, he slept; at night he rose to battle the enemy in futuristic cities and pastel landscapes on his PC, or tinkered on another monitor with any of the codes (Java, Perl, Rust, C++ and C#) he taught himself in high school. Finally, last November, his parents insisted that he get a job — any job, at the bakery down the street or at McDonald’s, if it came to read more

He has autism. He’s willing and able to work. Can he find the right fit?

Tom Whalen, a 27-year-old man with autism, is great at getting jobs but has had trouble keeping them. (Julia Leiby/For The Washington Post)

In the past decade, Tom Whalen, a 27-year-old Baltimore County man, has had jobs at an animal shelter, a mailroom, multiple grocery stores, a doggy day-care center and a landscaping company.
He is chatty, outgoing and engaging, quick to win over strangers and ask for opportunities. Then, in short order, he loses them.
“He could get jobs,” says his mother, Sue.
“The problem is maintaining them,” adds his father, Ed.
Tom was born with a heart defect, took forever to potty train and played mostly by himself during preschool. He was in kindergarten when an observant teacher offered the Whalens a hypothesis that might explain their son’s behavior: autism.

The next 12 years of school were marked by special-education plans, adapted-learning strategies, personalized assistance and lunches spent at what Tom remembers as “the reject table.” But it was also a haven of structure, safety and socialization. He had a place to go, people to look out for him, opportunities every day to learn and find his strengths. (Tom could solve complicated math problems in his head — he just couldn’t explain to teachers how he’d done it.)

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