Employing the Full Spectrum

How employees with autism are helping one business thrive.


When Andrew D’Eri, a silent, withdrawn toddler, was diagnosed with autism, his father, John, was confused.

“What is autism?” he asked the family doctor.

His befuddlement about his two-and-a-half-year-old boy’s condition soon turned to denial: It can’t be my son, he thought. This isn’t happening.

That gave way to the hope for change: He’s going to grow out of this. Or for a cure: We’ll find a miracle.

By the time Andrew was a teenager, John had grown to accept that “Andrew is who Andrew is,” but he began to worry about what would happen to his son when he outgrew his school years. Would he ever get a job? Where would he live when John and his wife, Donna, grew too old to care for him? The realization that his son might never be able to lead an independent life gnawed at him.

John, an intense, fast-talking businessman who had developed a successful document-management technology used by several large New York City law firms, had socked away money to pay for Andrew’s ongoing care. But he decided he needed to do more.

“Everyone has a capability to contribute,” he says. “Andrew needed more help than others, but in the right spot, Andrew could do a job.”

But what was that spot? John didn’t have a clue.

One day, while at a car wash near the family’s home on Long Island, he had an epiphany. “I’m watching this zoo, a disorganized array of nonsense, where one car’s moving, one car’s not, three guys on this car, one guy on that car, everybody getting antsy waiting for their car,” he recalls. “But I’m thinking to myself, ‘Andrew can do this.’”

John figured that if Andrew was to thrive at such a job, he would need to work with a few other young people with autism, and the only way to make that happen, he concluded, was to own the car wash. His friends and the parents of other autistic people thought he was crazy. The noise and odor at a car wash, they warned him, would likely be too intense for those with autism.

“What if one of them has an episode?” one person asked.

Another wondered what John would do to occupy employees in their downtime, noting that autistics crave structured environments.

Even his wife was opposed. “What are you talking about?” Donna asked. “I don’t want Andrew doing that for a living.”

John, however, was undaunted. The more he was told that it couldn’t be done, the more he wanted to try – not just for Andrew, but for other youth with autism as well. Everything he knew about his son made him think it could work.

His goal, however, wasn’t just employment, but profit. He didn’t want to set up a charity car wash, but a moneymaking operation that would show that people with autism could be productive employees. And he didn’t want them shunted to in a back room, away from public view: He wanted them out front.

He had no data or other research to support his business model, just conviction.

“I’m doing this,” he informed his relatives and acquaintances. “I’m gonna make this happen.”

Despite his outward confidence, John figured he first needed to learn about the business of cleaning cars and whether it might be a good fit for people with developmental challenges. He was joined by his other son, Tom, who had just graduated from college with degrees in finance and corporate sustainability.

Their quest led to conversations with corporate disability consultants and, eventually, to CarWash College, a training school for wash owners and operators. When they learned that the school was just eight miles west of their vacation house in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, they saw it as a sign. “Kismet. Boom. There it is,” says John.

John and Tom arrived at the school bubbling with excitement. Paul Fazio, the chief executive of Sonny’s Enterprises Inc., the equipment company that owns the college, met with them and listened to their idea to run a wash staffed by people with autism.

Workers at Rising Tide clean the interior of a car after it has been washed. (photo by Thomas Shomaker)

“I don’t think this can work,” Fazio told John and Tom. But he admired their desire to find a way for Andrew and people like him to gain independence. “Whatever you can do to help these guys, do it,” Fazio instructed his staff.

John and Tom decided to conduct an experiment at a South Florida car wash that Fazio owned. They approached the University of Miami’s autism research center with a request to recruit 15 people on the autism spectrum who were willing to spend two months cleaning cars.

“Totally suspicious,” is how Michael Alessandri, the executive director of the university’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, recalls his initial reaction. “When you are someone who takes care of people with autism, you are pitched every idea under the sun, and most of them are quite ridiculous or nonsensical.”

But John and Tom’s description of the car wash intrigued him. “Highly structured, highly systematized – it fit very well with my idea of what’s necessary for people with autism.”

After some discussion, John and Tom got the 15 recruits they’d asked for and began training them to wipe down washed cars and clean the interiors. They broke the process into 43 separate steps, which the recruits needed to memorize and complete in less than six minutes.

After five weeks of training, their crew was put to the test at Fazio’s wash. The workers happily went through the assigned tasks with precision. Nobody cut corners.

John and Tom didn’t tell customers that the new employees were autistic. When each car was finished, Tom handed a survey card to the driver. One of the questions was, “Would you recommend this service to someone else?” More than 95 percent of respondents said yes.

“I’d hire these guys,” Fazio told John.

Soon after they concluded the experiment, John heard about a car wash for sale in the South Florida city of Parkland. Its location wasn’t great – it was less than a mile away from a more popular wash – but it was just a modest commute from their home. “It was where you went when the line was too long at the other place,” John says.

But he bought it anyway.

“We were all in,” he says. “All those chips, they went right in the middle of the table.”

The family moved from New York to Florida, and John took possession of the wash in December 2012, at the height of the busy season. His first act was to shut the place down.

He and Tom needed to recruit staff and train them. The D’Eris also had to overhaul the process for finishing a car’s care after it passed through the wash tunnel, implementing a color-coded system – red terrycloth towels for the exterior, blue microfiber ones for the windows and yellow ones for the interior – that, they hoped, would make it easier for people with autism to do the job than simply saying, “Don’t use the same towel you used to wipe the tires on the dashboard.” By harnessing an “affinity for structure that people with autism crave,” Tom figured they could provide a better wipe-down service than their competitors.

They decided to christen the wash with a new name: Rising Tide.

When they opened four months later, they didn’t mention autism to customers. “I didn’t want to send the wrong message, because the truth of the matter is, I didn’t know what I was doing,” John says. “If they got a bad wash and they knew it was autism-centric, I would send a counter-message out to the public.”

John D’Eri, center right, his wife, Donna, and their two sons, Andrew, left, and Tom. (photo by Thomas Shomaker)

Their employees with autism, including Andrew, quickly surprised John and Tom. Not only did they master the wipe-down routine and perform each step with care, they did it with smiles on their faces. For all of them, Rising Tide was their first paid job. Some had been told they would never be able to find work. Some had been turned away by other employers. In South Florida and across the nation, about 80 percent of young adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed, according to Alessandri.

“I have guys that come in on their day off. I have guys that come in early, and if you ask them, ‘Tyler, what are you doing here an hour early?’ you know what his answer’s gonna be? ‘Well, in case they need me, I’m here,’” John says. “I have a staff who cares about what they’re doing.”

Within a few months, Rising Tide was exceeding John and Tom’s expectations. It soon turned profitable. And this year, it is on track to wash 160,000 vehicles, a higher volume than most suburban facilities of a similar size.

They now are open with customers about their mission. Rising Tide’s logo features the outline of a jigsaw puzzle piece – a widely recognized symbol of autism awareness – and a rack in the customer waiting area offers brochures about autism-related community activities.

Some customers drive 30 minutes to use the wash because they want to support the employees, but the D’Eris believe the majority of patrons are just coming because they’re getting their cars cleaned well.

Nonetheless, John and Tom say they are enjoying an “autism advantage.” Not because of customer pity, but because of their workers’ cheery attitudes, focus, and attention to detail. A few of their employees, for instance, can guide cars onto the wash tunnel’s conveyor belt with greater efficiency than people who aren’t on the autism spectrum.

“These guys are the best employees you could possibly have,” says Tom, whose calm and methodical demeanor contrasts with his father’s louder, more freewheeling style. “I get to go to work every day and people are smiling and happy to be there.”

Rising Tide is a unique for-profit business: 85 percent of its workforce is on the autism spectrum.

“They’re the ‘normal’ employees,” Tom says. “The whole culture is now really cemented around accepting and empowering people with autism.”

For many of the workers, getting a paycheck has transformed their lives. They’re able to buy things for themselves – Tom often urges them not to blow it all at the nearby videogame store – and they can contribute to household expenses. “They’re bringing home a check to a family that really needs it,” John says. “Before, they were a burden. Now they’re a wage earner.”

John and Tom have noticed another change. Their employees have begun to socialize after work, sometimes gathering at a restaurant filled with games and amusements.

“I have friends here now,” says Sean Gervil, who started working at the wash in 2015. “They care about me.”

Andrew, who was recently promoted to work on the driver’s side of cars, which involves communication with clients, shares that sentiment. “I like being with my new friends,” he says.

And he’s thrilled to work with his father and brother. “Dad started Rising Tide so we could all be together,” he says. “That’s cool.”

He now carries a wallet stuffed with small bills distributed from the tip box. Recently, when the family went on a trip to an amusement park in Orlando, he purchased souvenirs with his earnings.

Andrew’s transformation has amazed and reassured Tom, who used to worry about what would happen to his brother. “I don’t feel the same pressure that I once felt: ‘Well, when my parents are gone, Andrew’s gonna be living in my basement,’” Tom says. “Now I feel like, ‘Well, Andrew’s got a life, and he’s got his own group and his own tribe, and his own future.’”

John and Tom are planning to open a second car wash location in 2017, and they’re developing a series of seminars to help other families of people with autism start businesses on the model of Rising Tide.

“This one family started a movement,” Alessandri says. “This family could have easily just focused on their one son, their one unique family situation. But instead, they decided to create something bigger, to create a place that other people could look at and be inspired to do the same for their children in their communities.”

That wasn’t John’s initial goal. But it is now.

“This is my destiny,” he says, looking at Andrew. “I found who I am in him.”

Tom D’Eri helps wipe down a car. (photo by Thomas Shomaker)

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