Some studies show adults with autism are often unemployed or underemployed, but one Portland-area nonprofit is working to change that.
Mark Woodard's dream is to one day work as a programmer.
"Dealing with computers, generally, is my passion," said 26-year-old Woodard.
But Woodard wasn't always so sure that could happen, saying his K-12 education was a “negative experience.”
Woodard, who is autistic, said he's often struggled communicating in social settings.
"After that, I tried going to college down in Eugene but I guess I think the shortest answer is in retrospect I don't think I was properly motivated at that point and so that just kind of fizzled out." said Woodard.
That's where Justine Haigh comes in.
"I have an adult autistic son myself," said Haigh. "He's almost 20 in just a couple weeks."
Haigh's son, Daniel, is non-verbal.
"He's quite impacted with autism," said Haigh.
But Haigh said Daniel still teaches and inspires her every day.
"He has an amazing ability to just live in the moment," she said.
At age 16, Haigh said she started noticing her son either playing games or constantly on is iPad.
"It was like a major interest for him and so I thought this might be a major interest for a lot of people on the autism spectrum," Haigh said.
From there, Fidgetech was born. It's a Portland area nonprofit founded in 2016 that helps train young adults with autism for jobs, mainly when it comes to technology.
That means hands-on training in classes like computer game design, programming, and also audio and video creation.
"So we're trying to create a bridge of opportunities from first exploring and trying out what's possible with technology, to then being trained and educated, and then on to internships and with obviously the end goal being employment," Haigh said.
Haigh said from the beginning, she noticed Woodard excelled at almost everything he tried.
So much so, he now helps other students during special workshops and most recently landed his own internship at the company Neturf Solutions in Oregon City.
"I think it's a good thing for people to overcome their hardships and be able to turn that into success," said Eddie Donelly with Neturf Solutions .
But that's not why Eddie Donelly, Project Manager for the advertising company, hired Mark. He hired him, because he was the best man for the job.
"From his training, he was one of the best candidates that we interviewed for," said Donelly.
For Woodard, he finally feels like he can put his talent to use.
"I feel just generally that I'm able to make something useful now rather than just knowing the skills that are necessary to make something," he said.
And with one internship down, Woodard said the next stop is finishing up his classes and eventually landing that full-time dream job.
It’s something he's now confident will happen thanks to Fidgetech helping him become a valuable employee by giving him an invaluable experience.
"It helped motivate me in addition to supporting me," said Woodard.
Haigh said a lot of people on the autism spectrum do struggle socially and have a hard time selling themselves during an interview. She said that's where companies need to start rethinking their hiring practices.
For more information on Fidgetech, go to fidgetech.org.
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