Autism in the Workforce

Autism in the Workforce

Every year 50,000 adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) transition out of high school and into the workforce, yet the unemployment rate grows faster than any other disability. It seems there is a major disconnect concerning adults with ASD and employment, and the resources needed to help are limited.

7 Incredible Therapeutic Farms in America

Here at Legacy Farms Virginia we are winding down from our 2015 Summer
Garden Project and it was an amazing experience. Last summer, we planted a garden, grew a lot of tomatoes and made some great strides in promoting our cause, but this year our program put people to work at two local vineyards, Sunset Hills Vineyard and Tarara Winery. Our goal has always been to make a real impact on the community and show them just what we can do for our participants, and we proved we could with our Summer Garden Project.

Over the last few years we have researched a variety of “Green Care” programs. There are 172 active vocational and residential agrarian based programs in the US. We wanted to learn what was working and where we could really find our niche, and what we found was quite astonishing.

1 Bittersweet Farms

Bittersweet Farms mission is to positively impact the lives of individuals with autism and those whose lives they touch. We visited them several years ago and the miracles we witnessed were what motivated us to begin our quest.  They provide both residential and vocational services that include:

  • Agriculture (including planting and harvesting)
  • Horticulture (including greenhouse operations)
  • Fencing & landscaping, construction, repair & maintenance
  • Produce collection
  • Animal feeding & care
  • Craft-making & woodworking

Bittersweet Farms has been care farming for nearly 40 years and is the pinnacle of success. They currently have 4 locations in Ohio each with it's own unique program and are a true inspiration for therapeutic farms everywhere. 

2 Innisfree Village

Founded in 1971, Innisfree Village is a fully licensed, residential community for adults with intellectual disabilities just outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Their residential or "Lifesharing" program, which houses over 80 "Coworkers", volunteers, and staff is truly exceptional as both resident and volunteer caregiver share housing among one another.

Daily life at Innisfree Village is community centered and everyone who stays there has a role to play. There are many jobs to choose from:

  • Bakery
  • Community kitchen
  • Farm
  • Vegetable garden
  • Herb garden
  • Weaver
  • Woodshop

Lifesharing at Innisfree means that coworkers and their caregivers live, work, and play together allowing them to share in all experiences life has to offer. This is what makes Innisfree so amazing, as these folks essentially become family to one another. 

3 Quincea

Quincea is a nonprofit vocational services organization dedicated to offering employment training, job transition and support services for individuals facing employment and social access barriers in Tempe, Az. Of all the Care Farms we reached out to, Quincea offered the most help. They logged over 18,000 hours in 6 years researching the nation’s farmstead programs and created their own program using what they felt was the best model.

Quincea works with both adults with autism and veterans from Iraq. (What a perfect blend of people helping people.) As a social enterprise they strive to create economic and social opportunities for their participants. They are still in the developmental stage but have secured land and begun development to offer a variety of products and services such as:

  • 15 greenhouses
  • Incredible Edible Healing Gardens
  • Therapy dog park
  • Native plants and fish propagation
  • Habitat restoration program
  • An onsite classroom facility for vocational training/job development programs

 Jon Hall, one of Quincea's founding members, has extended his hand and offered to collaborate and help Legacy Farms get off the ground. He understands how we are all here to serve those in need, even if it's from 2300 miles away.

4 Pine Acre Farms

Pine Acre Farms Therapy Center is a nonprofit organization, with a goal to enhance the lives of children and young adults with autism and other related developmental disabilities through the power of animals. They specialize in "Animal Assisted Therapy" and use miniature horses and dogs to draw children with autism out of their shell and reinforce positive behavior.

What makes them special is their off-site service. Instead of coming to Pine Acres, they bring the Miniature horses and therapy dogs to places like:

  • Nursing Homes
  • Assisted Living Centers
  • Hospice Care
  • Rehab Centers
  • Hospitals
  • In-Home for the home bound patient

Everywhere they go, they make a positive and lasting impression on those they visit.

Therapy pets provide emotional and spiritual healing to everyone they encounter and are being used now more than ever. Research shows some of the health benefits include:

  • Improved human cardiovascular health
  • Reduction in stress,
  • Decreased loneliness and depression
  • Increased social interactions

Pine Acres provides this service for free and operate solely on donations.

5 Green Bridge Growers

Aquaponics is a food production system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks with hydroponics, cultivating plants in water in a symbiotic environment. In South Bend, Indiana a new social venture, Green Bridge Growers is providing skill-matched employment for underserved young adults on the autism spectrum, and creating jobs in the field of aquaponics.

Green Bridge not only provides jobs for adults with autism, they are also very involved with the community. Indiana imports 90% of their produce from out-of-state and coincidently 905 of adults with autism are unemployed, so they figured, "Why not put these two 90% problems together and develop a solution that also contributes to our local community?" and that's what they did.

They also use organic growing methods and materials to grow year-round, allowing them to employ aquaponics as the basis of our system. 

6 Lettuce Work

Lettuce Work is by far one of the best models for success in the industry.  This non-profit 501c3 organization is dedicated to serving young adults with autism and training them for the future. They have a very simple operation, but the work they provide and the people they help is far from child's play.  

Lettuce Work operates a commercial greenhouse that provides a platform for seamless transition from school-to-work than offers job training and employment opportunities for young autistic adults. And what is it they do at Lettuce Work, they grow lettuce of course, and tons of it.

The Lettuce Work brand is well known throughout Ohio and is seen in local schools, grocery stores and restaurants and provides a steady stream of income that allows them to continue to help those in need. They grow hydroponically which allows them to grow pesticide free produce year round.

7 Loudoun Therapeutic Riding

Located right in our backyard, Loudoun Therapeutic Riding has been helping to empower and improve the lives of people with cognitive, physical and psychological disabilities through the benefits of equine-assisted activities and therapies, while serving our industry through training and education since 1974.

LTR provides 8-week sessions where skills are developed that address each participant’s specific challenges. These include areas such as balance, posture, strength, mobility, sensation, gross and fine motor functioning. Each instructor at LTR are PATH Intl. certified, which is one, if not the most respected therapeutic training certification in the country. They specialize in working with people with disabilities and teaching methods that assist individuals with physical, cognitive, and mental health challenges to learn horsemanship skills and benefit from the equine environment.

Recently, we visited LTR and planted a “Pony Garden”, so they could grow carrots, spinach and beats to hand feed the horses. We are very impressed with their organization and hope to one day be looked up to with as much respect and admiration as they are by the community.

Gardening and Autism, a Match Made in Heaven

Families around the world with a child in the Spectrum are constantly searching for a way to get through to the ones they love. A way to give them a moment of peace or a chance to create something of which they can be proud or at least content. Some find it through art, others through music and now in Northern Virginia they are finding it in a garden.

Ben in the garden.

Ben Monson enjoys the sunshine and tranquility of the moment, while watering the tomatoes in Legacy Garden.  That simple task according to the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association, is part of horticultural therapy, a formal practice that uses plants, horticultural activities, and the garden landscape to promote well-being for its participants.  Ohhh…snap…that’s what we’re doing at Legacy Gardens!

“Watering the plants has helped Ben focus on the task,” Tracy Monson, Ben’s mom said, “Watering seems to bring out his focus. Once I showed him how to aim the hose at an individual plant and sing ‘1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 all good dogs go to heaven’ to indicate how long to water each plant, he loved it! He was determined to water all the plants.”

Ben finds it difficult focusing on completing tasks fortunately “task completion” is one of the benefits of gardening.

Two Gardens in Chicago

Clare Johnson from My Chicago Botanic Garden, shares the benefits of gardening in a blog posting titled Gardening and Autism.

“The first benefit has to do with the physical garden space itself....Gardens can serve as a welcome break from the classroom or facility environment.”  Johnson continues, “The second benefit was the participant’s ability to follow directions with multiple steps.” Finally, “The last benefit dealt with sensory integration, with a focus on the tactile system.” Early on, students would avoid being touched or getting dirty, however over time participants work through these avoidance's and  actually become, “…fascinated with the soil and plants.”

These are not the only benefits gardening offers adults with autism. In another area of Chicago, Growing Solutions Farm offers a vocational therapy garden created in 2013 by Julie Tracy, a mother of an adult son with autism.  The vocational therapy garden trains youth and young adults with autism, using agriculture as the vehicle to acquire vocational skills such as:

  • Time management
  • Interacting with co-workers
  • Appropriate dress for work
  • Possibility for a job in the agriculture/horticulture fields

While being interviewed on WGNtv, Tracy explains why she started Growing Solutions Farms. “Young adults with autism right now have an unemployment rate that hovers around 90%, it’s really a crisis.  In the next 5 years, 500,000 young adults with autism will turn 22 years old and age out of supports that are available in the public school system.  Our society is ill-prepared to deal with this tsunami, is what we call it, of young adults coming down the pike.” Growing Solutions Farm hopes to be an answer to the upcoming crisis.   

Presently, Growing Solutions Farm has 20 paid interns working several hours per week.  Tracy states that having a paid job on a student’s resume is putting that person on the road to success in securing employment in the post-secondary job market.

A Sweet Treat

Back at Legacy Garden, Ben’s mom inquires as to what other skills would be beneficial for these young adults to learn? “The other thing I found especially compassionate and sweet is when I was moving the hose around (the garden) and it got caught, Ben would automatically go and remedy the snag without being asked thus demonstrating teamwork!” 



So does gardening and autism go hand in hand?  When Ben started gardening at Legacy Garden he wasn’t that interested in the plants, but over time he is gaining gardening skills.  As indicated by Johnson and Tracy, gardening skills will increase independence, social and vocational skills ultimately demonstrating that gardening will provide numerous benefits for adults with autism and other developmental challenges.  With that…you be the judge.

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The Farmstead Model and Why it Works

Agricultural autism communities, or farmstead programs are not a new concept.  Programs of this type have been in the United States for several decades.  Two of the most well-known farms are Bittersweet Farms, in Ohio, and Innisfree Village in Virginia. They were both created in the 1970's and have served as the model and inspiration for others who have started similar programs in their communities. 

Instructors at Legacy Farms teaching the interns about harvesting.

Instructors at Legacy Farms teaching the interns about harvesting.

The farmstead model works very well. This is because the rural setting and numerous activities available on a farm provide a variety of therapeutic benefits that include:

  • Engaging in meaningful, purposeful work which creates a sense of accomplishment
  • Daily opportunities for physical and cognitive exercise
  • Allowing those who have been cared for the opportunity to care for and work in teams with others
  • Living in a quieter environment and a slower pace of life
  • Being involved in the seasonal rhythms of farm life

To better understand just how farming helps, try to imagine a typical day on the farm.  Depending upon the "farmers" interests and abilities, they could feed the animals, gather eggs, tend the garden, work in the greenhouse, bake bread,  and help with meal preparation. They learn skills they can use in the day-to-day farm operations or take with them to a job site. 

It’s not all work either, there would be plenty of time for recreation as well, such as music, art therapy, and physical fitness activities.  For those involved these work and recreational options are more appealing than those offered in an urban environment. 

The farmstead model is a community where participants live and work, incorporating daily and seasonal routines, while participating in meaningful vocational, recreational and community activities.  

How one Business Venture is Rising to the Occasion for Adults with Autism

Families of adults with disabilities are taking the business startup into their own hands.  People aren’t comfortable leaving the future in the hands of the government.  Long waiting lists for waivers, lack of vocational training, and limited opportunities are inspiring families to become entrepreneurs and ensure their adult children have a job.  Here is one creative, successful venture that sprung up in Parkland, Florida. 

 Rising Tide Car Wash, a scalable “conveyorized” car wash is the brainchild of John D’Eri and his son, Tom D’Eri.  Using John’s 20 years as an entrepreneur and Tom’s degree in Economics/Finance from Bentley University, a business was shaped for Andrew, their son and brother who has autism.  Andrew graduated from high school without many options for job opportunities.  It wasn’t that Andrew couldn’t secure a job, he was just at a disadvantage due to his disability. 

Andrew and other individuals with autism have unique strengths that could be used at a car wash. According to the Rising Tide website, “A car wash has favorable labor attributes for many people with autism. The car washing process is largely automated and the tasks are structured and easy to learn. While car washing is process driven by nature and therefore relatively repetitive, there are a variety of tasks that must be done including vacuuming, drying and polishing with some variation such as washing different types of cars. Moreover, many people with autism have a great eye for detail which lends itself perfectly to providing a quality car wash. ” 

Social skills are improved on as well.  Employees interact with the customers, which provides an opportunity for them to be involved with the community.   

Rising Tide Car Wash is the first company created by CanDo Business Ventures. CanDo is a company geared towards creating businesses that provide jobs for adults with autism.  John D’Eri started CanDo to create for-profit business opportunities that address the lack of jobs for adults with autism.  Rising Tide Car Wash is just the start.

“Each Rising Tide location will have high exposure in the community and provide employment for people with autism through easy to learn, process driven labor. Rising Tide will have strong enough profitability to support a community of people with autism through living wages, career advancement opportunities, independent living skills and self-advocacy training.” according to the Rising Tide Car Wash website.

People should become more aware of businesses like Rising Tide Car Wash and consider using adults with autism in their own businesses.  The advantages would be two fold; they would be providing an opportunity for a group of individuals that just need a chance to show what gifts and talents they have, and in return they would get loyal employees which, honestly is a rarity in today’s workforce.