Life on the spectrum: Roanoke nonprofit connects employees living with autism with jobs

‘A person with a disability can have a well-rounded existence, just like anybody else: home life, social life, work life’

‘A person with a disability can have a well-rounded existence, just like anybody else: home life, social life, work life’

ROANOKE, Va. – Owen Blessard fell in love with bikes when he was four years old.

“I love riding bikes, working on them, taking them apart,” said Blessard.

Now, at 19 years old, he gets paid to work on them.

“I build the bikes. I try to fix them too,” said Blessard.

He’s an assembler at Cardinal Bicycle in Roanoke and he’s coming up on his one-year anniversary with the shop.

“Game-changing. I love it here. I hope I can stay here the rest of my life,” said Blessard.

His path to employment was a little windier than most. He’s on the autism spectrum.

“I didn’t think I was gonna get this job. So I’ve been working so hard trying to get this job,” said Blessard.

That’s where St. Vincent’s Home comes in. One of the nonprofit’s missions is to help adults living with autism find employment.

Adult and Community Services Coordinator David Shaw said once students graduate or age out of services through school, they hit what’s known as the “autism cliff.”

“The services dramatically just drop. Kind of like a cliff,” said Shaw.

Think of St. Vincent’s like a parachute.

“A person with a disability can have a well-rounded existence, just like anybody else: home life, social life, work-life,” said Shaw.

Autism is a spectrum, so some employees need more support than others, such as a job coach that will help them during their shifts.

However, at $60 an hour for 20 hours a week, funding can be a barrier for families.

“You take somebody who has been in school, learned a ton of skills,” said Shaw. “Now, they are out in the world ready to maybe get a job, maybe live on their own, but still need a little support, [they] aren’t able to do those things because they don’t have the proper funding.”

Canteen Vending District Manager Clifton Padgett – who employs two men through St. Vincent’s – wants other employers to consider the opportunity.

“I think it’s been life-changing for us as a company to have them involved in what we do. And also from talking with them, it’s been very life-changing for them,” said Padgett.

Blessard just got his driver’s license and can now drive himself to work.

“Work hard and never give up on your dream,” said Blessard.

A dream that – for Blessard – has come full circle.


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You can watch Lindsey during Virginia Today every weekend or as a reporter during the week!