When Jim Lyman worried about his son’s future, one that involved the challenges of autism, he thought of roses. Lyman approached an old friend, Tom Pinchbeck, whose family owned Pinchbeck’s Rose Farm, in Guilford, CT., with an unconventional idea—turn the recently closed rose farm into a program that hires and trains individuals along the autism spectrum.
From this initial idea blossomed Roses for Autism, a program that provides training, guidance and employment opportunities for older students and adults on the autistic spectrum. Roses for Autism tackles one of the biggest challenges currently facing the autism community—a disproportionally high unemployment rate that hovers around 88 percent.
“Eighty-eight percent is not acceptable,” says Julie Hipp, managing director of Roses for Autism. Especially since many individuals with autism are dependable, motivated, friendly and willing to work hard.
Lyman and Pinchbeck approached Hipp, who at that time was President of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Autism Spectrum Resource Center. Hipp, who also has a son on the autism spectrum, took the idea to Ability Beyond Disability (ABD), a nonprofit organization that helps individuals with disabilities lead fuller, more independent lives. Recognizing the project’s value, ABD created Growing Possibilities, a separate nonprofit that provides “transitional and vocational support through programs in agriculture and other industries.” Roses for Autism became the first business endeavor for Growing Possibilities, which leases the land from Pinchbeck who serves as both landlord and the program’s lead grower.
Although a rose farm, complete with greenhouses, a sorting machine, varied tools, freezers and plentiful amounts of noise and dirt, may not initially appear as the most likely place for a vocational training program, Roses for Autism enables participants to engage in numerous facets of business including marketing, shipping, inventory management, data entry, website maintenance, receiving and fulfilling orders and customer service. Additionally, participants learn how to grow, prune, cut, package and preserve roses. They also learn how to grade rosebuds and to create colorful bouquets and arrangements for weddings, parties and corporate events. “We try to make it as realistic as possible,” says Emylee Sidera, an employment specialist at Roses for Autism, “with just a little extra prompting, guidance, and some reminders.”
The work builds confidence, teaches critical decision making skills and fosters the ability to improvise and adjust to unexpected situations. For example, when sorting roses, participants must decide whether roses are good, okay or bad. “Bad” roses are discarded. The job requires learning how to maintain the balance between keeping quality roses versus producing enough roses to sell and be profitable.
To qualify for the Roses for Autism program, each applicant goes through an initial skills assessment and then must apply and interview for a position at the farm. Students are eligible to earn class credits, while individuals who have completed high school can become paid employees. Evaluations for interested individuals can be funded through the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, Department of Developmental Services, school systems or private sponsorship.
Beyond teaching technical workplace skills, Roses for Autism can dramatically improve a person’s social skills. The program is designed to encourage teamwork and interaction stressing the importance of cooperating with coworkers and supervisors in a business setting.
Lori Gregan, retail operations manager for Roses for Autism, explained that participants are encouraged to show initiative and has been pleased that most are eager and willing to try new things, even if initially reluctant.
“They really want to be here,” says Gregan, who shared several stories that illustrated the dramatic changes that participants undergo during their time on the farm.
She recounted one young man who refused to make eye contact with anyone for weeks when he started the program. Out of the blue, he asked to work the front desk where he would interact with customers. Another day when Gregan, overwhelmed with constant phone calls, was holding a phone in each hand, he gestured to take one of the phones and capably handled the call. From then on, he took phone orders and handled customer questions.
One of the remarkable aspects of the program is how often participants can go through a physical transformation, both in demeanor and in dress. There can be dramatic changes in their interactions with other people as well. Most participants have gained significant self-confidence, and many students have seen their grades rise as well.
One young woman arrived at the farm having worn only dresses and skirts for her entire life. She simply refused to wear pants. While that was fine for front desk work, she was told that, if she wanted to work elsewhere on the farm, pants were required for practicality and safety. The next day, the young woman showed up wearing pants, ready for a new challenge.
In addition to learning new job skills, the program familiarizes participants with more mundane or commonplace aspects of the workplace such as using a time clock or handling the state-of-the-art touch screen cash register, which is similar to those found at other business establishments.
While many of the benefits for participants are tangible and heartwarming, Roses for Autism is fundamentally a business They grow and sell roses—as many as 800,000 this year alone. Although Roses for Autism applies for grants and welcomes corporate and personal donations, the sale of roses, lilies, potpourri and dried floral arrangements is critical to the success of the program—just like any other business.
Roses for Autism is a fully functional rose farm complete with more than 50,000 square feet of heated glass greenhouses. The farm produces 16 varieties of roses and 3 varieties of lilies. Their roses have two inherent advantages over roses from afar. Firstly, customers know that they are receiving a homegrown product that supports a worthy cause and, secondly, the roses retain their natural fragrance. Many roses are now imported from South America. Although cheaper, these roses are bred to survive transit and extend life in a vase, while sacrificing fragrance Roses from Pinchbeck’s farm, which are cut fresh daily, retain a distinctive and pleasing fragrance that distinguishes them from the competition. They also last longer than their imported competitors, by as much as two to three weeks if they receive proper care.
Roses for Autism also teaches job placement skills with the aid of an employment specialist to help prepare participants for life after the farm. Each participant creates a portfolio that contains information on their specific skills, experience, topics they like to talk about, topics they don’t like to talk about and future goals.
Roses for Autism is now in a position to help place some of the program’s participants in jobs elsewhere. However, the program’s potential can already be seen in Stephen Packard, an early participant who now works full-time on the farm as an emarketing specialist and, according to Gregan, has become invaluable to the daily operation of the business.
Everyone involved with Roses for Autism hopes that the remarkable transformation of the participants will encourage other businesses to duplicate the model. They foresee the program being implemented for individuals with other disabilities or conditions in a variety of working environments.
Despite the success of Roses for Autism, people within the community and business world need to be made aware and eventually acknowledge that individuals along the autism spectrum can be productive, valued employees of a company. A key objective of Roses for Autism is demonstrating that people along the autistic spectrum can adapt to different working environments, handle responsibility, make critical decisions, and interact with coworkers and customers.
Although the national conversation on autism centers on debating the causes and seeking a cure, Roses for Autism has taken an innovative step to improve the quality of life for people on the autism spectrum and, potentially, positively impact the high unemployment rate.
“You can’t just wait for the cure,” says Hipp.
Robert Tomaino has been writing about medical and health issues for 15 years. He specializes in patient and physician education materials, rare disorders and medical research. He has written for the National Organization for Rare Disorders and the Leukemia Lymphoma Society.
WebMD Feature from “Exceptional Parent” Magazine