“We are not looking for charity, we’re looking for a chance for our kids to be productive and contribute to their communities,” longtime local resident Janet Miller says. Organizations and agencies are here to help employers.

One day a week, 20-year-old Connor Barbee goes to work at Mill Valley Music, doing some filing for owner Gary Scheuenstuhl and handling the local independent music store’s overstock. 

But while the shift is brief and the work is often mundane, the relationship between Scheuenstuhl and Barbee is far deeper than employer and employee – it is actually proof positive that a person with special needs can be a valuable, diligent, hard-working employee who is not seeking a helping hand but simply a chance to counter stereotypes.

Barbee is autistic. With April being Autism Awareness Month, Barbee’s mom, longtime local resident and former Mill Valley School District board member Janet Miller, who founded the Challenger League and helped found the It Takes a Village initiative, has launched a campaign to encourage local employers to consider hiring young adults and adults with special needs – and to see the benefit in doing so. Miller is working with San Rafael-based Autistry Studios, a pre-vocational program, to spread the word about the potential benefits of hiring someone with special needs.

“I want to stress that we and our children are not looking for charity – we’re looking for a chance for our kids to be productive and contribute to their communities – and they can,” Miller told the Mill Valley City Council this week after the council issued a proclamation recognizing April as Autism Awareness Month.

In making the case that people with special needs can be valuable employees, Miller stressed that employers will find that people with special needs often bring specialized skills. Barbee, for instance, is able to see patterns and irregularities in systems in ways that other can’t, Miller says.

Scheuenstuhl admits that he was initially a bit reluctant at the prospect of taking on an employee with special needs. But for the past two years, Barbee has proven himself “very conscientious, diligent and reliable – he’s just a great kid,” Scheuenstuhl says. “He cares so much and he wants to do things correctly, which is not necessarily a universal attribute.”

Barbee doesn’t work alone at Mill Valley Music, regularly bringing along a job coach. That fact highlights one facet of the vast support structure that exists for employers willing to hire a person with special needs.

The structure includes the state Department of Rehabilitation, which provides a variety of services to support both the employer and employee and has an office in Novato.

It also includes local organizations like Autistry Studios, which was founded six years ago by Janet Lawson and Daniel Swearingen as they imagined the future of their son Ian, who is autistic and who is now a senior at Redwood High School. Autistry is a pre-vocational training center for autistic kids.

“We don’t expect the world to be autism experts,” says Lawson, noting that Autistry supports five interns at the Buck Institute for Aging Research and two employees of the Play-Well Activity Center in San Anselmo. “We will support those business who hire our children and who partner with us to give back in a meaningful way to our community.”

Miller said that with the latest data indicating that 1 in every 68 children is diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, awareness isn’t the end goal.

“The crisis is what happens to these children who are now becoming adults,” she says, noting that only 21 percent of adults with a disability participate in the labor force. “Very little has been done to understand these adults and provide services that help them transition into the labor force. It’s critically important that we as a society to recognize the talents and specialization that these people can bring as employees.”

The campaign to encourage employers to hire people with special needs is not solely focused on those with autism.

Mill Valley Market employs two people with special needs, and co-owner Doug Canepa says his store is better for it. One of those employees is Morena Weiss, a woman who is deaf and was born in El Salvador. Five years ago, she joined her two sisters as Mill Valley Market employees. Weiss works at the deli counter, and for those customers accustomed with the deli’s longtime use of a checklist for made-to-order sandwiches, there’s zero impediment for Weiss to be successful, Canepa says. Now married and the mother of two children, “She’s blossomed – she can’t speak but her personality just absolutely captures everybody,” Canepa says.

The market also employs someone who is bipolar. While Canepa stresses that it requires patience and training of both the employee with special needs and the entire staff to make it all work, the rewards are abundant.

“It provides something they didn’t have before – they can be part of society,” Canepa says. “Honestly, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. To know that you’ve provided something that they can’t get elsewhere – a sense of pride, self satisfaction – it’s just a great feeling.”

The 411: Miller is in the midst of launching an organization that will help connect employers with employees with special needs. In the meantime, for more information or if you are interested in receiving more info, click here to email her or visit Autistry Studios online.

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