When did you get your first job?
Maybe babysitting and dog sitting for your neighbors at 12 or scooping ice cream or serving pizza at 16? Jobs like these are how we learn to manage money, keep a schedule, and interact with a boss. These positions are crucial learning experiences before we graduate high school and enter the workforce. Unfortunately, jobs like these are not accessible to a lot of students with disabilities.
Lettuce Work Nursery in New Albany employs young adults with autism to help bridge the transition between high school and the workforce.
“We’re a training platform. We immerse them into a real workplace and provide a lot of coaching on very basic skills that most employers would expect them to already know,” said Co-founder Doug Sharp.
As their autistic son, Daniel, grew older, Doug and Julie Sharp started to consider what comes next for students who have a lot of support within the school system.
Almost 42 percent of young adults on the autism spectrum never worked for pay during their early 20s, a National Autism Indicators Report (NAIR) found.
“We were really focused on trying to create something that would help them transition and help fill that gap,” Doug said.
Lettuce Work started by growing lettuce in 2014 to sell to grocery stores and even feed to manatees at the Columbus Zoo. In 2018, they transitioned to a nursery selling flowers, herbs, shrubs and more.
Daniel attended Oakstone Academy where Julie is an Intervention Specialist. Julie recruited volunteer teachers from Oakstone to help support their programs at Lettuce Work. Doug takes care of the business side and Julie runs the programs and works with the associates.
Part of their work includes hosting a vocational group from Oakstone a few hours a week.
Associates at Lettuce Work have never had a boss or a supervisor before and don’t know how to interact in that type of relationship.
“Most of them have only had experience with teachers and parents, so they try to slot you into those two things,” Doug said. “We have a lot of conversations around here about ‘if you did this at your next job, you might get fired for that, and here’s the right way to handle it.’”
Associates at Lettuce Work build the skills that we often develop throughout school and work opportunities, such as anticipating what to do next, following directions, and reading a schedule.
People who come to Lettuce Work could be there for just a few months or work for a few years. Everyone’s needs are a little different and one of the best parts of Lettuce Work is that they can commit to helping people for multiple years, Doug said.
Evan Brody is 27 and has worked at Lettuce Work since its creation.
He said he wished people knew that autistic people are just like everyone else, “we have ups and downs, we may have a hard time understanding at first, but we’re just people.”
Evan said he didn’t enjoy the work at first. He found it difficult to keep up with new expectations but just like all of us, we learn that a job is just a job.
“You just do it,” he said. “I improved and I started to like my job. Take it one step at a time.”
Hannah Lafyatis, 19, said she really enjoys getting to talk to customers and meeting new people every day.
Hannah and Evan, like most associates, found Lettuce Work through their parents or someone from the school introduced them. Autistic people with less support at home have a harder time getting into work programs like Lettuce Work.
The hardest part is often as simple as transportation, Doug said. Most of their associates don’t drive and the COTA buses don’t go out that far.
A NAIR found a disparity between income levels- Nearly 72 percent of those from upper-income households (>$75K) worked after high school compared to 33% of those from the lowest-income households (<$25K). While there are a lot of disability programs out there, Doug said that they don't have the funding or the staffing to be effective. Only 14 percent of adults with autism who used developmental disabilities services have paid community-based employment, according to a NAIR in 2017.
Getting autistic people into the workforce where they have a paycheck and benefits is a lot better than relying on underfunded state programs that can be costly for taxpayers, Doug said.
The Sharp’s are looking forward to expanding on their nine undeveloped acres and helping more young adults with autism learn the skills they need to find permanent employment in the community.
Lettuce Work is off the beaten path and mostly funded by their own revenue with 20 percent coming from donations. Doug said he can’t compete with big-name nurseries.
“Their ad budgets are bigger than our annual budgets,” he said.