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.)