Unemployment among those with autism is approximately 85 percent. This statistic means that roughly two-thirds of people with autism are not working. In general, those with autism had lower employment rates and higher rates of social isolation than people with other kinds of disabilities. These numbers are daunting for those with autism and the families and caretakers who love them.
Rather than continue to worry, one family decided to do something about it and create their career path for their son.
The Creation of the Car Wash
Donna D’Eri and John D’Eri spent countless hours thinking about what their son, Andrew, would do when he was no longer there to support him. Andrew is a vibrant young man with autism. As Andrew grew up, John saw that although he was becoming a competent young man, there were virtually no opportunities for him after he aged out of the school system.
In 2011, when Andrew was 21, John, and his older son Tom D’Eri, had the idea to buy a car wash to employ Andrew as well as other people with autism. That idea evolved into a groundbreaking social enterprise, Rising Tide Car Wash.
“We created Rising Tide Car Wash with Andrew’s future in mind,” Donna said. “Andrew will always have a job at Rising Tide Car Wash, so his ability to make a living is set. This business was formed around people within the diversity and their attributes, to give them the opportunity to be able to support themselves.”
Founded in November 2012, Rising Tide Car Wash is in Parkland, Florida, and a second location opened in Margate, Florida, in September 2017. The Margate location is one and a half times larger than the Parkland location and is created nearly fifty new jobs in the community for adults with autism.
Andrew role is as a Driver’s Side Associate. “He cleans from the front bumper to the back of the car. He dries the cars and door jams, vacuums the driver’s side, cleans the windows, wipes down the dash, and more,” Donna shared. “He is delighted with his work – even in these times during the pandemic where he has to wear a mask and wash his hands more often, not to mention the heat. He never complains and seems to really like working with his teammates and having his own money. He gets so much more from his job than he can verbally express.”
Providing Jobs for Others With Autism
Since the launch of Rising Tide Car Wash, they have employed over 200 individuals with autism. “We have about 75 employees on the autism spectrum,” Donna shared. “Which is approximately 80% of our employees on the spectrum.”
With their business model, they were able to service up to 150,000 cars per year, and with the success of the first location in Parkland, Florida, they decided the build the second location in Margate, Florida.
In a nationwide comparison, Rising Tide is the largest single-store retail employer of individuals with autism in the U.S. with 80+ employees and among the first consumer brands in the nation focused on empowering young adults with autism.
When asked what the customer response has been, Donna explained that the majority of their customers know about their mission. “We haven’t experienced any issues, and customers have been very accepting of their idiosyncrasies,” she stated. “Based on our observations over the past seven years and some small-scale research studies, it appears that many of the maladaptive behaviors our children express when at home or in recreation seem to come out much less often in the workplace.”
The Autism Full Employment Act of 2021
Given the current state of employment, it’s understandable that those in the autism community would be especially concerned. Providing jobs is something that the Autism Full Employment Act of 2021 aims to address by encouraging self-help efforts, like the ones at Rising Tide Car Wash, and focused recovery funding.
I asked the D’Eri their thoughts on this Act. “At Rising Tide Car Wash, we believe there is no one solution to any situation,” Donna answered. “All initiatives are helpful in some way, and a combined analysis of past and present programs yield today’s best practice. That said, we believe in the self-help model. We feel that any model that purports to initiate, subsidize, and generally help create a self-reliant platform of success will have the farthest-reaching impact on the individuals being supported. There are hundreds of businesses today that focus on diversity in the workplace as an advantage.”
“Any support to enhance existing businesses or create new sustainable places with sustainable jobs where the diversity and its attributes cause a business to thrive is a strong basis for change in the workplace,” Ms. D’Eri continued. “If that is what this Act is all about, it is a distinct change in direction from the previous initiatives, which are mostly based upon financial assistance and supported job environments. I am enthusiastic to see the positive, self-reliant, and sustainable results for the people within the diversity and the community-at-large. My experience knows this will be the outcome.”
If you are someone who has a loved one who has autism and you’re concerned about their career path, the D’Eri family recommends doing your research and look for an environment with a great support system in place.
“We truly believe that social entrepreneurship is the key to independence, purpose, and fulfillment for people on the autism spectrum,” Donna proposes. “My older son, Tom D’Eri, also co-founded Rising Tide U, which provides a road map for families who believe starting a business is their only way to help loved ones with autism build a future.”
Along with the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD) and The Taft Foundation, they launched an online program called The Autism Advantage. It’s one of the only programs of its kind that walks participants step-by-step through creating a social enterprise that supports neurodiverse individuals.
“People with autism don’t need anything different than the rest of your employees. They need some things more,” Donna clarifies. “When you make systems more clear, more objective, and more streamlined, you not only make your business more accessible for talent with autism but everyone in your company.”