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Roses for Autism

By Robert Tomaino
WebMD Feature from “Exceptional Parent” Magazine

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.

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