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Working with autism in the Big Bend area

Full Disclosure: Tammy Dasher has worked with people with disabilities for more than 26 years, and currently works as an autism consultant for Florida State University’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.

Tucked behind the busy thrum of the I-10 flyover at Thomasville Road in Tallahassee is Florida State University’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, a state-funded or- ganization serving individuals with autism.

Inside, the walls of the center’s complex are lined with striking art pieces created by clients. The art-gallery effect of the care- fully lighted paintings and the showcased sculptures provides a tangible exam- ple of the interesting range of the autism spectrum — some of the artists are non-verbal; others hold advanced college degrees — yet their artwork is a medium through which they all speak.

The agency provides free services to people with autism, as well as to fami- lies, teachers and other professionals working with those individuals.

Created 25 years ago through the efforts of par- ents seeking help for their children, the agency assists those with autism through sharing resources, train- ings and awareness events.

Serving every county in Florida, there are seven centers associated with the state’s universities.

Autism and Related Disabilities, which is displayed at the center as an example of the amazing abilities of those who are diagnosed with autism.

Florida State University’s Center for Autism and Re- lated Disabilities works in the 18 counties of the Panhandle, from Pen- sacola in Escambia County through the Big Bend to Taylor County.

Especially during April, Autism Awareness Month, it is important to discuss how autism affects the ability to work for those who are diagnosed with it.

While some of those di- agnosed with autism are “autistic savants” — peo- ple who possesses certain skills far in excess of aver- age (generally related to memory or mathematical, artistic or musical abili- ties), it is important to know that not all people with autism are savants, and even those who do possess extraordinary skills in the areas of math, art, music and memory struggle daily to find jobs and maintain employment — largely because of the social and communication difficulties that are hall- marks of this condition.

Autism Spectrum Disor- der is a developmental dis- ability that affects an estimated 1 in 68 school aged children.

People with autism can have significant social, communication and be- havioral challenges.

They also often struggle with sensory issues, like hypersensitivity to sounds, textures and tastes.

Executive functioning skills, such as planning ahead and organization, can be affected as well.

Art by Kurtis Frank, a client of the Florida State University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, which is displayed at the center as an example of the amaz- ing abilities of those who are diagnosed with autism.


The “spectrum” part of the name recognizes the wide range of the effect of autism — from those who are unable to communicate to those who are working on their PhDs.

As a popular saying in the autism community goes, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

As autism awareness has grown, early intervention and increased access to in- tensive therapies has markedly improved the outcomes for children with the disorder.

However, adults with the disorder have not re- ceived much attention until recently. Once out of the protective high school environment, they fre- quently struggle in college and the workplace.

Their challenges with social, planning and orga- nizational skills get in the way of their success.

Social anxiety, which is often diagnosed in tan- dem with autism, hinders their ability to showcase the skills that would make them an asset to compa- nies. Job interviews are particularly difficult.

According to the Na- tional Autism Indicators Report of 2017, only 14 percent of adults with autism spectrum disorder had paid jobs in the com- munity, although 50 per- cent of self-respondents stated that they would have liked to have a job.

Adults who are more severely affected by autism spectrum disorder are more likely to have supports in place.

However, for adults with milder forms, autism can be a “hidden” disability.

Instead of seeing social or sensory difficulties, em- ployers and co-workers sometimes see rudeness.

Navigating the social dy- namics of the workplace is an exhausting effort for those with autism spec- trum disorder and has been described as “an extra job in addition to the pay- ing job.”

Center for Autism and Related Disabilities con- sultant Allison Leatzow is the woman behind the beautifully displayed art collection, the coordinator of the center’s juried art shows, and the dynamo juggling the organization’s collaborations with local museums and VSA Florida (a nonprofit group that promotes the accomplishments of artists with disabilities).

he is a passionate advo- cate for those with autism. In addition, Leatzow is in her 13th year working with adult clients of the agency to help them finish school, search for jobs, successfully interview and maintain employment.

Before joining the agency, Leatzow spent 11 years as a job coach for the Leon Advocacy & Re- source Center and the Leon County Schools’ Adult and Community Education program. These experiences gave Leatzow a first-hand view of the struggles of adults with autism spectrum disorder to find employment.

This knowledge drove her to create the Interview Skills Curriculum she de- veloped along with former Florida State University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities Director Lindee Morgan.

The curriculum is a se- ries of classes designed to help adults with autism spectrum disorder become more adept at the inter- view process.

“Individuals with autism may not always interview well in the traditional Q & A format,” Leatzow said. “For those that find the traditional job interview challenging due to their social-communica- tion deficits, they can take the free class offered by the Center for Autism and

Related Disabilities utilizing the Interview Skills Curriculum.”

“Basically, it covers the interview from start to finish with a focus on the be- havioral and social aspects of the interview process,” Leatzow continues.

Participants are videotaped in pre- and post mock job interviews at the beginning and end of the 12-week series.

“The recorded interviews allow the participant and instructor to see what areas they have improved in and areas where they still require some support,” Leatzow said.

Leatzow believes that skills often possessed by those with autism such as pattern recognition, strong attention to detail, and tolerance for repeti- tious tasks, are skills employers are seeking when hiring coders, a well-paying job in the technology industry.

Autism educator/advocate Allison Leatzow

“People with autism can make great employees be- cause of their strengths,” Leatzow said. “Many have a tendency to be good rule followers; have punctual attendance; be particularly adept at doing very de- tailed work others would find monotonous; and an ability to stay on task and complete jobs.”

In addition to the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, adults with autism who are seeking job assistance also can turn to their local Vocational Rehabilitation office. Vocational Rehabilitation is a federal-state program that helps people with physical and mental disabilities find employment.

Services vary by state, but vocational evaluation and planning, career counseling, training, job placement and job coaching are usually offered free of charge to Vocational Rehabilitation clients.

Need more information? Contact the Center for Autism and Related Dis- abilities at or (850) 644-4367.

Gadsden County’s Vocational Rehabilitation office is located in Quincy (305 W. Crawford St., Suite C) and can be reached by calling (850) 875-2949.

Story By: Tammy Dasher