CONCORD -- Evan Thomas can tick off the names of world leaders, tell you just about anything you want to know about trains and World War II, and confidently lead visitors on a tour of the learning center where he works in the deli and learns math and independent living skills.
He can also tell you that he has Asperger's syndrome, which is in the family of autism disorders and is characterized by poor social interaction, an aversion to change, physical clumsiness and atypical use of language.
Thomas' diagnosis at age 4 made him part of a statistic that has jumped -- possibly due to better diagnoses -- by 20 percent in recent years: One in 88 U.S. children is diagnosed with an autism disorder by the age of 8.
Now 19, the Concord resident is not, however, part of a new and also unwelcome statistic that shows that, even years after high school, one in three young adults with autism has no paid job experience or higher education.
Things are far different for Thomas, a jovial, speaks-his-mind high school graduate who, through the Spectrum Center Schools and Programs, works at the Safeway on Monument Boulevard in Concord, cleaning up around the store.
"He's a really good employee. We've watched him grow from when he first came in. He was kind of shy and we've watched him come out of his shell," said store front end manager Rodney Burnett. "He's very dependable and he's really proud of a job well done."
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"We look for what they can do rather than what they can't do," said Spectrum Center vocational coordinator Ray Myslewski. The workers are paid minimum wage through grant money and work a few hours a week at first.
"Employers look for skills that are transferable to a work environment: Being able to be a member of a team, manage time, work with tools safely, have good boundaries with customers and fellow workers, and show up when you are supposed to," Myslewski said.
Thomas wears a Safeway uniform and name tag just like everyone else in the store but for him, the job seems just as much about building self esteem as fattening his wallet.
"I think I can do things that other kids with autism can't do," he said. "I like to work. I like to show them I can do good and that I'm a hard worker."
But without the work program, it could be difficult for Thomas to find a job.
The center tests students to determine what types of jobs they are good at and what work they'd like to do. The center then partners with national chains to offer opportunities for on-the-job training, volunteering and job shadowing, Spectrum officials said.
That's good news for people with autism. A recent study shows that within two years of leaving high school, more than half of those with autism had no job experience or college or technical education, according to lead study author Paul Shattuck, an assistant professor at Washington University's Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis.
"One thing that is great about the workability program is they started them out practicing, practicing, practicing on how to fill out a job application. And they had times when they went to mock interviews and that has always been really positive," said Thomas' mother, Roberta Thomas, 52.
Spectrum Center operates state-certified, nonpublic schools as well as several integrated collaborative classrooms on public school campuses that provide special education services to nearly 100 school districts. There are eight campuses in the Bay Area, including locations in Oakland, Hayward, San Jose and Richmond, and centers collaborate with businesses, including Safeway, Marshalls, CVS and Best Buy, to provide students with temporary jobs that can turn into permanent positions.
In the last four years, the workability program placed an average of 110 students per year in paid on-the-job training positions, Myslewski said.
Learn more about the Spectrum Center Schools and Programs at www.spectrumschools.com/.