Finding a fit for autism in the work world

Chelsea Schwartz of Roseville works at the Roseville Chrysler Jeep Dodge Dealership as a file clerk. Schwartz is autistic, but staff says she's the best file clerk the dealership has ever had. (submitted photo)

Chelsea, far left, is flanked by a strong support system, including her mother, Janet, father, Gary, and Opportunity Services case manager Rachel Majerus. (Johanna Holub/Review)

Schools, employers join forces

22-year-old Chelsea Schwartz works more than 30 hours a week at two part-time jobs. She's interned at one of the largest and most well-known companies in Minnesota. She's saving up for a car, or maybe a trip to visit a friend. And she certainly doesn't let having autism slow her down.

Career exploration

Schwartz, a Roseville resident, attended Roseville Area High School for four years, then entered into the three-year Career and Life Transition program, a joint collaboration between the Roseville and Mounds View school districts.

Schwartz says she particularly enjoyed a child development course she took at RAHS, remembering she once got to take home a life-like baby doll over a weekend. She liked the experience, even though the doll was programmed to cry at random times and students' grades depended on responding promptly, whether they'd been asleep or awake. Sue Givens Wolff, an autism resource specialist at RAHS and Schwartz's teacher during her time in high school, says at the time Schwartz was thinking about working with children after graduation.

Givens Wolff says Schwartz's enthusiasm and determination stood out.

"Chelsea always had such a positive attitude and wanted to try," Givens Wolff recalled. "Some of it was really hard for her. But she stuck with it."

During her last year of the CLT program, Schwartz took part in "Project Search," an internship program that helps people with disabilities gain job experience. She was placed at Medtronic, and rotated through three 10-week internships: one in the demolition, scrap and reclamation area, one in the digital printing area and another in the work center.

She says she enjoyed her time learning about digital printing the best, because she got to be on her feet and it was much quieter than, for example, the demolition area.

This experience got her thinking about doing administrative work instead of working with children, and after she completed the CLT program, her job search begun.

'Spot on'

Janet Schwartz, Chelsea's mother, says as tough as the employment world is for high-school grads in general, it's especially difficult to find a workplace understanding and receptive to employing those with disabilities.

"As a parent, you can take your child so far. You can't go into an interview with them. But they might not do well in an interview ... They need that type of assistance."

That's where Opportunity Services, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, comes in. Staff members help disabled clients find jobs, applying on their behalf and helping them with career skills. A lot of the time, it's just a matter of getting a foot in the door, according to Schwartz's case manager, Rachel Majerus.

While Schwartz was on the hunt for a job, she and Majerus worked together to fill out job applications, prepare resumes and cover letters, and hone job skills, often meeting at the Caribou Coffee across the street from Byerly's, where Schwartz has bagged groceries for the past three years.

In June, Schwartz found a job at the Roseville Chrysler Jeep Dodge Dealership as a file clerk, making sure invoices and receipts for new and used cars are filed promptly and accurately.

Majerus, a 2004 RAHS graduate herself, said Schwartz was a fast learner.

"I was there with her [at the dealership] the first two days, kind of helping her get the hang of it ... She was very quick, and there are no mistakes -- she's spot on, accurate, fast. They're running out of things for her to do."

When asked what she finds challenging about the job, Schwartz said, "Nothing, really. I like my co-workers. They're nice to work with."

Majerus agreed, saying Schwartz "has it mastered."

Schwartz's co-workers say they love working with her, and even threw her a celebratory party when she got her driver's license a few weeks ago.

"Chelsea is the best file clerk we've ever had," office manager Mary Droher said. "She is always here early and is always wearing a smile."

Majerus says Schwartz's co-workers are a "natural support system" for her, and added that Opportunity Services can sometimes act as a professional buffer so parents don't feel the need to check on their children while they're working.

Becoming independent

While Schwartz enjoys working, it's not the only thing she likes to do.

"I like hanging out with friends and going on vacation," she said, adding that she likes spending time with her younger sister, Christine, and their dog Abby, a cocker spaniel/bichon frise mix.

And, now that she has her license, she's thinking about buying a car -- "something safe," if you ask her dad, Gary -- or saving her money for a trip to visit a friend in South Carolina.

"You never know where your child is going to go," Janet mused. "She's happy with herself ... and proud of what she's doing. She's getting herself up in the morning, and will soon be driving herself to work."

Givens Wolff says she sometimes sees Schwartz while she's working at Byerly's. "I'm so proud of her and so happy for her too. She's come a long way."

Janet says she's very grateful to the dealership for taking a chance and hiring her daughter, a sentiment echoed by her husband.

"I think companies would be surprised by how good a job [people with disabilities] do," Gary said.

"Kids just want to work," Janet agreed.

Johanna Holub can be reached at or 651-748-7813. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.


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