Dustin Strasser slaps the deck of cards as if he’s trying to squash a bug, shaking the flimsy folding table in front of him. Joshua MacAran, who takes command of the room with a sarcastic cool, gives him a familiar furrowed look that means calm down.
Strasser, 19, gets that look a lot. Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, he can get fidgety and doesn’t always realize when his loud noises or sprawling gestures are bothering others. That’s where MacAran, a 31-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, steps in to help.
Like Strasser, MacAran knows what it’s like to be out of the loop on what others consider to be socially appropriate. A few years ago, he was getting fired from food-service jobs after tattling on co-workers when they didn’t strictly abide by rules. Now, he helps run the Monday group at Trinity Cathedral Church, where adults on the spectrum practice social skills before they step into the reality of the working world.
“We often view them as disabled,” MacAran said of adults with autism. “They’ll never fit into society or be able to form long-lasting relationships or even work relationships. And that hasn’t been true in my life. There were a bunch of skills I was terrible at, and I was able to learn them. ... We have to meet people where they are socially and guide them into relationships. We need to create venues where people can connect.”
Formed two years ago by Carmichael therapist Kim Wagaman, Strasser’s group is one of few such gatherings in the Sacramento region designed for autistic adults out of high school but not quite independent. It provides an opportunity for them to regularly interact with people beyond family members.
Often, young people on the spectrum want to spend time with others but won’t take the initiative to do so, Wagaman said. At home, they are comfortable retreating into their worlds of comic books and computers.
“There’s anxiety around initiating, putting themselves out there,” she said. “It’s a combination of emotional vulnerability from past experience and a fundamental brain difference. There’s not the same connection between their desire to be in relationships and the executive function to make that relationship happen.”
Members of Wagaman’s group are among the “first wave” of autism, those born in the 1990s and diagnosed later than children tend to be now and without the early intervention. With autism prevalence pegged at 1 in 68 children and rising, job-placement agencies, schools and residential facilities juggle to make room for the 50,000 autistic people who turn 18 every year.
Most attendees in Wagaman’s group are what therapists would call high-functioning: Verbal and largely independent, having spent hours of their childhoods with tutors or in special-education classes. They’re working on social skills such as holding eye contact, listening to others and not going off on a single topic during conversations.
Wagaman gives them a chance to practice their social skills in public with trips to the movies, strolls through Old Sacramento and nights of miniature golf. She offers ice-breakers when conversations get off to a slow start, and plays referee if the exchanges become too heated. She also monitors for behavior that wouldn’t fly in the real world and corrects it with a smile or touch of the wrist.
“What we’re actually doing is allowing the young adults who come to just be in practice with other people,” she said. “To fail, to misstep, to escalate, to succeed. They’re so hungry for that. Sometimes it’s sweet and clean and awesome, and sometimes it’s messy and complicated. That’s relationship. It’s not perfect, and we have to learn how to do it.”
Jacob Weinberg, 20, said the gatherings have helped him get “on the same wavelength” as others, something he said is harder with his peers at American River College. Weinberg lives with his parents in Carmichael and is taking classes in hopes of becoming an industrial engineer.
At meetings, Weinberg typically can be found nodding along to anime theme songs in his giant headphones unless Strasser breaks his focus. The pair then dive into long conversations about swords and Tasers, sometimes thumbing through the pages of a rare weapons magazine.
“I get to hang out with people my own age, who are interested in the same things as me,” Weinberg said. “I’m pretty close with everyone in this group.”
Terry Kaufman, Weinberg’s mom, pays out of pocket for Wagaman’s group, while a state-subsidized tutor instructs Weinberg in how to manage money, make grocery lists and do other tasks he might not otherwise take the time to complete on his own.
“I really appreciate that it’s not a social-skills training group, it’s just an opportunity for them to let their hair down and be accepted,” she said. “These kids are so passionate about what they’re interested in. And you don’t want to stifle that passion, but sometimes it has to be modified.”
A longtime member of the adult group, Strasser spent a lot of time after high school learning how to temper his quirks. Today he lives in shared housing in Carmichael, but his tendency to forget to return communal plates and forks to the kitchen after using them, or to not communicate about chores initially sparked conflict between him and his roommates. With help from Wagaman, he has learned to complete more of his tasks around the house and talk through conflicts that arise.
Outside the house, Strasser is applying for jobs from 7-Eleven to Best Buy, trying to overcome what he suspects is employers’ reluctance to work with the “neurodiverse.”
“We shouldn’t just see or hear the word ‘high-functioning autism’ and run scared,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything, for me, that would be a problem.”
On the contrary, Wagaman believes that autism spectrum disorder can be an asset in the workplace.
People with autism are often known as independent, detail-oriented thinkers who pose creative solutions to problems. Those personality traits can be useful in fields such as engineering and trades such as metalworking and carpentry.
Other skills common in high-functioning autistic adults, such as recognizing complex patterns or the ability to concentrate on tasks for hours on end, can help with mathematics and computer coding.
“A piece of the revolution we’re coming into, that we must come into as a culture, is that employers, and people in the workforce, need to have more understanding,” she said. “If we change, we won’t be so offended when the person with autism says something that’s really blunt and really true. ... Autism is this amazing lens for us to really look at human behavior so much more deeply.”
Kaufman said she has high hopes for her son Jacob, who volunteers at his local library. The trick will be finding a job that inspires him as much as the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons and his other hobbies, with colleagues who will understand and embrace his differences.
“These people have so much to contribute – you just have to tap into how to do it,” she said. “For us, we just hope the world will be kind and gentle to him. ... We hope he understands his value in the world.”