Through much of September, a robot named Zoe, developed at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, crawled around Chile's Atacama Desert in a dry run for a possible trip to Mars. The hundreds of megabytes of information it radioed to researchers loaded instantly into a database thanks to software developed by Joey Flowers, a 25-year-old Dormont man for whom robotics comes naturally, but small talk is nearly impossible.
After years of wrong diagnoses, inappropriate prescriptions and counterproductive hospitalizations, Flowers was diagnosed with autism at age 10. That diagnosis has since been refined to Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism in which the person has normal speaking abilities, but shows social difficulties and obsessive behaviors. As a child, Flowers could take apart and rebuild computers, but would be hopelessly alone on a crowded playground.
Thanks to his mother, Donna, and Nancy Minshew, research director of the University of Pittsburgh Center of Excellence in Autism Research, Joey Flowers got the right treatment and education. Still, he's not a regular guy. He didn't socialize much on the way to graduating from Keystone Oaks High School in 1997. He limped through English classes at the Community College of Allegheny County while earning an Associate of Science in computer information technology. Romance has eluded him. "I am still aware that I have a long way to go," he says.
When he started interning at the Robotics Institute in February, Flowers felt at home. "The research is very exciting," he says. Is that what he wants to do with his life? "Ohhhhhh yes!"
"He's done a very good job and it's been a pleasure so far working with him," writes Michael Wagner, a senior research programmer who supervised Flowers' internship, in an e-mail from Chile. So far, though, the Robotics Institute hasn't offered Flowers a job. "We want to keep working with him, but I'm not sure exactly how that will happen," Wagner writes.
Flowers is sending out resumes, but finding jobs doesn't come easy for autistics. Many have marketable skills but aren't wired for cold-calling employers, networking or finessing the inevitable describe-your-weaknesses question in the job interview. By definition, they're not team players.
There probably aren't too many autistics scanning the want-ads today. But the number of diagnosed autistics leaving high schools statewide is likely to increase five-fold by 2010, and it will stay high for years to come, according to data assembled by the Pine Township advocacy group Fighting Autism. (See City Paper's Sept. 15 Main Feature, "When Joshua Lost His Words," and Sept. 22 News Feature, "The Bill for Alexander"). Autistics who don't find jobs will likely receive disability benefits indefinitely, and the state Department of Public Welfare's autism task force reported in June that there's currently very little help available for autistics seeking work.
"That tidal wave [of autistics] is coming, and we have no jobs" for them, says Minshew, a member of the task force. "Where are the people who are going to hire someone who's weird?"
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Eddie Torisky rushes into the kitchen at the Autism Society of Pittsburgh's headquarters and announces: "I just want to continue on down the road. I don't want to move backward. I want to move forward." Then he turns and leaves.
Eddie's sense of forward motion is tied to the day 19 years ago when he was offered a job at Apel Printing in Monroeville, says Dan Torisky, Eddie's father and president of the local Autism Society of America chapter. That day, says Dan Torisky, "Ed came [home] and made full eye contact with the dog, and said, 'Toby, I got a job in the community.'"
Now 47, Eddie shows up at Apel Printing twice a week to clean the facility and some of the machines, and displays a sense of pride and self-worth he hadn't had before. Dan Torisky has tried to give that same experience to other autistics. The Autism Society of Pittsburgh co-founded the Spectrum Charter School, which has graduated 18 autistic kids in four years, and placed nine of them in paying jobs at places like the Church Brew Works and Festival Foods.
Spectrum achieves its .500 batting average by involving its students in volunteer work, matching kids with companies and educating employers on autism's peculiarities. Spectrum can only handle about 30 kids at once, though, and there are now about 900 school kids in Allegheny County receiving special education for autism.
Autistics often need customized vocational training, job-hunting help and assistance explaining their condition to employers, according to the state's autism task force report. Right now, that help isn't available. Pennsylvania has "no statewide system of appropriate supports for adults with autism," the task force's draft report found. There are programs to help the mentally retarded or physically disabled find jobs, and some of those can be jury-rigged to include some autistics. But about half of autistics are not retarded or physically disabled, and they can't get any help.
State Sen. Jane Orie, a McCandless Republican, is the prime sponsor of a bill that would create centers for the education of adults with developmental disabilities -- including autism -- at community colleges and state-supported colleges and universities. The bill has been stalled in committee since March 2003. Virtually all autism-related legislation is on hold while the welfare department finalizes its report. It's not yet clear how much of the report will be implemented; Welfare Secretary Estelle Richman declined to be interviewed for City Paper's autism series.
"Unless things change, Joey is not going to have a job," says Pitt research director Nancy Minshew. Same goes for many autistics, she says, and that's society's loss. Though not all autistics have Joey Flowers' skills, she allows, most make diligent employees who follow directions and don't waste time at the water cooler or make excessive personal calls. "They're only as disabled as we make them," she says. "What makes the person disabled is that businesses won't hire them."
Flowers recently helped teach a computing workshop at CMU, and one of his young pupils was severely autistic. "He was completely non-verbal, but very brilliant," Flowers says. Though the kid communicated only by nodding his head yes or no, the two clicked. "I had a hard time making things challenging for him," Flowers says. He's optimistic about what the future looks like for young autistics. "Their lives might not be at all bad."
His own life, though, is in limbo. He's volunteering at the Robotics Institute, while circulating his resume. The job hunt, he says, "makes me uncomfortable, actually. It's just the whole social thing. It doesn't come to me easily."
He'd much rather talk about Zoe, crawling through the desert, its wheels adjusting their velocity according to the surface they're traversing and the contours of the ground. When forced again to talk about his own future, he barely shifts gears. "All you can do is keep a positive attitude and move forward," he says, "and if you can't overcome something, adapt to it."