Action for Autism: Vegetables, self-worth grow in abundance in SARRC garden
PHOENIX — As researchers and doctors dial in on autism symptoms, the number of cases will rise before it eventually begins to fall.
In Arizona, research shows one in 68 children are being diagnosed. That’s twice as many cases as there were two decades ago.
If they’re fortunate to have early intervention, there’s a good chance they will adapt to the diagnosis and grow up to live a happy and productive life.
The latest autism research shows about 40 percent of those kids diagnosed will have trouble speaking with their peers, sitting in a loud cafeteria, or building social skills to make life-long friends.
Kristopher doesn’t have to imagine it, he has lived it for 21 years.
“I had no friends through high school, no friends in elementary, no college friends or church,” he said while sitting in the shade behind the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center.
His parents, teachers, even pediatricians, all knew he had trouble focusing but missed the finer clues of autism as the freckle-faced boy remained a loner through his elementary years.
“School thought I had ADHD,” Kristopher said. He didn’t know why he was incapable of making friends, he only knew that he had terrible self-worth.
“I was ashamed at one point,” he said, “because I didn’t feel like I was good enough.”
It wasn’t until after Kristopher graduated high school in 2013 when he learned the cause of his depression and loneliness. It was autism.
Having a name to it helped, but it wasn’t moving him forward at his first job in a fast-food restaurant.
“They had me clean the bathroom sink’s drainage.”
Without someone patiently teaching him other skills on the job, he continued to struggle, until one day, “They said they were going to take me off the schedule and call me back. They never did (call back).”
Kristopher listed his disability on his next application at a local grocery store.
“It appeared,” he said, “they didn’t read my file.”
He was assigned to work the checkout counter. “They put me in that spot because that was the only spot that was open.”
He admitted he wasn’t moving fast enough and soon he was out of another job.
The fact is, “Ninety percent of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed,” said Kate Thoene, SARRC’s social enterprise director.
She stopped to offer a bright green snow pea from the middle of the center’s garden on a quarter-acre of land behind its 16th Street property.
The snow pea is crisp and sweeter than store-bought versions.
In part because Kristopher and fellow intern Vincent have spent the past five weeks carefully tending to the delicate plant and rows of other vegetables and fruits growing at the community-supported agriculture garden.
Vincent is 26 and previously worked as a tax assistant. When he arrived at the center, his social skills were not ready for hire, but he has improved.
“I’m not getting a little attitude on Monday mornings anymore when people greet me,” he said with a small grin. During his first few days on the internship, “I would just grunt.”
Wednesdays at the garden put the interns’ socialization training to the test as dozens of families rush through the roundabout driveway to pick up baskets filled with organically grown vegetables, fruits and fresh-laid chicken eggs.
For 20 dollars, “Individuals can sign up for a 10-week season,” Thoene said.
Every Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m., members can pick up a filled basket.
A tiny greenhouse on the garden property serves as an incubator for a business partnership with a local garden store, Dig It, just up the street.
The store supplies starter seeds and soil. “The interns plant and take care of them until they’re big enough,” Thoene said. Dig It buys back the packaged starter plants to sell.
Tim Bishop owns Dig It, where one lush green row of leaves stands out among the other rows of plants for sale.
Every plant the interns cared for has a precisely marked tag tucked in its front with a neatly written price, and identifier.
“The attention to detail,” is not overlooked he said, “I don’t know if they would have looked that good had I done it myself.”
Garden program coordinator and internship supervisor Sarah Grone called it a dress rehearsal for a future job, where, under supervision, “they get to learn and make all the mistakes,” and then review without judgment or fear of losing a job.
After seeing the intern’s quality and professionalism first-hand, Bishop began selling Beneficial Beans’ handcrafted cement planters and its coffee beans.
The coffee beans started SARCC’s retail business model a few years back.
Now the beans and pots and planters are selling at 12 stores Valley-wide, including the Scottsdale Library’s Beneficial Bean’s Coffee Shop on the lower floor.
Clinician and café manager Aaron Zuroff was impressed on the first day he worked with intern Dylan.
“That very first latte was absolutely perfect,” he said. That’s high praise coming from a Seattle-trained barista.
“It definitely helps having someone mentoring you,” Kristopher said. “Then if you make a mistake, you can fix it and do it spot on every single time after.”
Dylan is applying for positions at Starbuck’s coffee shops and hopes to continue making perfect lattes.
When Kristopher and Vincent wrap up their internships, SARRC will help them pursue positions at autism-friendly local businesses.
Dig It Nursery could be it. After his first foray in business with Beneficial Beans, Bishop has learned to give people who have autism a chance.
“You need to get educated and be clear when working with people on the spectrum,” Bishop said, “If you are clear, you will get exactly what you want.”
From the person with autism’s perspective, the benefits are greater than a paycheck, Thoene said.
“You have a community of supporters, you have the dignity that goes with work,” she said. “I feel like people don’t realize what an untapped population this is of valuable skills.”
Kristopher sees the benefits. “I’m finding friends now,” he said. “I also think autism isn’t such a bad thing after all.”
To learn how you can partner with Beneficial Beans, or where its products are sold, check SARRC’s website.
Thoene says 100 percent of the revenue goes back into programs supporting adults with autism.