Business & Real Estate

Why one small business is taking a chance on hiring autistic adults

A Placerville glass business is creating a new model for employing autistic adults

Forever Glass in Placerville hires autistic adults to help run the business while giving them workplace experience. Some people with autism face big challenges building careers that could let them live independently.
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Forever Glass in Placerville hires autistic adults to help run the business while giving them workplace experience. Some people with autism face big challenges building careers that could let them live independently.

On the sun-soaked patio of Placerville’s Lava Cap Winery, Richard eyed the case of empty blue bottles he was picking up from wine club manager Kevin Jones. Without any prompting, Richard launched into a lecture as he worked.

“The blue comes from cobalt and nickel, the green from copper oxide,” said the eager 29-year-old about the bottles in Jones’ arms. “Red glass you don’t see very much because it’s made from gold.”

He would have gone on had his mother not gently reminded him it was time to load the bottles into the car. Like many adults on the autism spectrum, Richard has an uncanny knack for memorizing details, but doesn’t always choose the best moments to share them.

Richard now has a safe place to practice those skills while working for Forever Glass, a young Placerville company that makes and sells glass bowls from recycled wine bottles. His mother, Cathy Porter, who launched the business last year to hire adults with developmental disabilities, said Richard and others like him can become valuable employees, with the right support. The Bee is only using Richard’s first name at the request of his mother.

“By giving him something that is appropriate, that he is knowledgeable about, it gives him this connection to the community he wouldn’t otherwise have,” Porter said. “They’re making business relationships, people know them. That’s really how it should be. They shouldn’t be isolated.”

Porter is attempting to bridge the employment gap that burdens hundreds of Northern California families impacted by autism. As prevalence of the disorder climbs and more teens transition into adulthood, many parents worry how their children will support themselves when they’re gone. While some high-functioning autistic adults enter competitive fields and live independently, many on the lower end of the spectrum struggle with symptoms such as poor verbal skills, crowd anxiety and trouble understanding instructions.

Only 26 percent of California adults with autism spectrum disorder are employed full-time or part-time, according to the Autism Society of California’s 2014 employment report, compared to 63 percent of the general population. Some autistic adults attend college, while many others attend state-sponsored day programs or stay “at home, doing nothing,” according to the survey.

But with the right work environment and a little more support from the state, Porter and other advocates say more autistic adults could build fulfilling careers.

“As we get older, we want to make sure there’s a way for (Richard) to be a part of the community,” Porter said. “We started Forever Glass to make sure he always has something.”

Throughout Northern California, parents are searching for places where autistic adults can pursue their passions. In Fair Oaks, the newly opened Meristem school trains students in agriculture, culinary arts, film making and metal work, among other fields, with the goal of eventual employment.

In Half Moon Bay, Kim Gainza and other parents are close to breaking ground on the Big Wave Project – a part residential, part commercial facility that will offer jobs to autistic adults through its farm and deli and the local businesses allowed to lease space on the campus on the condition that they hire people with developmental disabilities.

Gainza said she plans to provide housing for about 25 people as well as jobs for many more.

“You hit 22, you age out of the public school system, and then what?” Gainza said. There is nothing else like (Big Wave). We’re just going to have people contacting us right and left about this.”

Once the campus is built, Cathy Porter said, she hopes to lease a workshop and storefront for Forever Glass.

The project emerges alongside new state efforts to bring into the workforce the 50,000 people with autism in the country who turn 18 each year. The California Competitive Integrated Employment Blueprint, drafted last fall, aims to revamp career options for developmentally disabled people, ultimately phasing out sub-minimum wage work over the next five years.

Olivia Raynor, director of the public-private California Employment Consortium for Youth, said she wants to get people out of “food, filth, filing and flowers … the four fields that everybody with developmental disabilities lands in.”

“It’s usually piecemeal work – sorting things, unpacking things, taking things apart,” she said. “We shortchange people with developmental disabilities, in general, out of convenience. A good job is one in which a person has an interest, one in which there’s a career path ultimately, and one in which they can earn minimum wage and beyond.”

Kellie Willey, for one, is working tirelessly to match clients with their dream jobs. Her state-supported career agency, Progressive Employment Concepts, serves about 110 developmentally disabled adults in Davis and Citrus Heights.

Finding the right fit for autistic adults can be a challenge when some have difficulty adjusting to busy environments, working quickly and communicating with others, Willey said.

“Maybe they have trouble speaking, maybe their résumé doesn’t look as impressive as someone else’s because they have employment gaps – employers can look at that and not want to consider that person,” Willey said. “It’s a hard task sometimes to find a business who’s open and willing to look at it. Mom-and-pop businesses seem more willing and more able to create a job or customize a job or just hire somebody.”

The agency is helping Jessica Beckett, a 26-year-old on the autism spectrum, look for a part-time job. Beckett works at a pet store, where the busy pace and constant customer interaction can be stressful. She’d rather work in a quiet office environment, she said, or, even better, run her small anime cartoon business, Kawaii Rabbit Designs, full time.

“I feel very happy when I create something, and put it on something practical that people can use and enjoy,” Beckett said. “People on the spectrum don’t have to just do mundane jobs. Everyone on the spectrum has some skill, something they love to do. You just have to be able to customize it.”

In Porter’s hot glass shop, iridescent bowls of all shapes and sizes glimmer on the shelves and tables. A stack of clear bins contain crushed glass in a rainbow of colors. Richard and the other employees are responsible for cleaning and crushing the glass after collecting the bottles from half a dozen Placerville wineries.

On his favorite days, Richard gets to create his own templates for molten glass. On a recent morning, he stared intently into a clay-lined bowl, his brow furrowed beneath his fedora as he pressed seashells into the soft mold. Sometimes he draws fossil patterns or ocean waves, he said.

“My favorite part is making the designs and carbonizing the bowls,” he said.

Once the mold is ready, Porter and her sister and business partner Bernadette Guimarin fill it with melted glass pulled from a 2,000-degree kiln. Porter and Guimarin sell the bowls on their website and at the Placerville Art Gallery.

The sisters also offer a personalized “keepsake bowl” service, where customers can send recycled bottles from a wedding or other special event and have Forever Glass turn them into one-of-a-kind glass creations.

Right now, Porter and Guimarin are just breaking even on equipment, marketing and payroll (employees make $11 per hour). Porter also sells her own professional glass art, and her husband works as a blacksmith. As sales build, the sisters hope to hire a shop manager and step away from day-to-day glass production. They envision a team of adults on the spectrum bustling around the family’s woods and gardens, each honing their craft and learning the value of a day’s work.

“Here they can explore all of their strengths,” Porter said. “It would, I think, ease them into other employment down the line.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola