Last month saw the observance of World Autism Awareness Day. Global landmarks from the Empire State Building to Beijing’s Millennium Monument were illuminated in blue, and social media lit up with hashtags urging followers to wear blue and to create greater awareness for this widespread disorder and promote interaction with the autism community. It also marked the kickoff of National Autism Awareness Month in the United States, where autism affects one in every 68 children. Because of that statistic, chances are high you may know someone with autism, which is certainly the case at the Barnes & Noble College bookstores on Long Island; LIU-Post, Nassau Community College and Hofstra University, who have been getting to know a special group of autistic young people for some time.
Barnes & Noble College Regional Manager, Ray McGale, came to understand autism through his nephew, Douglas Di Prisco, who attended the Genesis School, a local Long Island institution founded by parents of children with autism. For over 12 years, store employees at the Hofstra University Bookstore have welcomed the regular visits from Genesis students and their coaches, usually twice a week for a couple of hours, to help out with the store. “It’s a program the school runs with several businesses and big box retailers,” McGale says, “but they clearly love coming to Barnes & Noble College the most.”
Although the students are not actually employed by the store, he believes the interaction with young adults their own age, and the busy yet calm bookstore environment, particularly appeal to the participants with adult autism. But the program isn’t just a charitable gesture, the autistic students are invited to participate in a meaningful way to the general running of the store as Steve Babbitt, General Manager at the Hofstra University Bookstore explains. “According to their abilities, they’ll work alongside our own student booksellers, in the textbook department straightening shelves, putting size tags on our T-shirts and sweatshirts, and placing clothing on hangers,” he explains. “We also have a summer program which attracts higher-functioning groups of students who might check-in books, pull returns and other areas of the store where we benefit from their abilities,” he adds.
That work experience can be a two-way street, as the students also appreciate working in the store environment, “Barnes & Noble at Hofstra has been a volunteer work site for the Genesis Eden II participants for many years,” says Nicole Rios, Coordinator of Clinical and Vocational Adult Day Habilitation Services at the school. “Our participants organize and stock the shelves, hang and size the apparel, and many other tasks. They absolutely love going there! The staff knows all of us by name and always makes an effort to make it a welcoming and friendly environment. It is our favorite community outing every week,” she says.
Autism can be present from birth or develop during early childhood, which is something Jorge Lanas, Store Manager at the LIU-Post Bookstore, experienced when his own daughter, now four-years old, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. “It’s a great program and very close to my heart,” he says about the visits at his store, this time partnered with another local autism school, Quality Services for Autistic Community (QSAC), whose students also visit the Nassau Community College Bookstore.
“We normally host 10-12 students, some high-functioning and some who need coaching, but they’re all great kids and do a great job for us at the store,” he says. Lanas explains that the guests perform the daily tasks his booksellers do – cleaning, shelving, stocking, assembling cap and gowns. “They’re just like our own store crew,” he says, also acknowledging that their presence in the store brings reciprocal benefits. “You can see our employees are empowered by having them help us out, and we really look at them as part of our store’s family,” he says.
A characteristic of people with autism is that they often have problems interacting with others; autistic children in particular do not have the benefit of socialization and utilizing communicative skills. “It’s not just about performing the work, it’s about the interaction,” Babbitt maintains. “One teacher would take her group to the college cafeteria after their shift in the store for an opportunity to be with and meet our students. Those kinds of experiences are really what the program is all about,” he says.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. “As a parent, I’m so glad to be part of this program, and proud of a company that enables this opportunity for autistic children to get outside their four walls, in a social environment, and get exposure and experience with the community,” Lanas says.
While he admits that there is probably a long way to go before autism is fully understood, he also believes there is hope. An example of progress is Spectrum Designs, a local marketing merchandise and printing business, founded by an LIU-Post graduate, that employs young adults with autism. A link to Spectrum Designs’ custom tee shirts is featured on the bookstore website — and the business’ success is growing.
Ask Regional Manager McGale why the bookstores should accommodate such a unique part of the community and he’ll answer you with a story from a Genesis School Annual fundraiser dinner he attended recently. “There were a whole lot of pictures of the students at our Hofstra store and the activities they enjoyed there,” he recalls, “But the student who emceed the event, after introducing himself, took care to point out that he had a job, and said, ‘Every Monday afternoon, I go to work at the Hofstra University Bookstore.’”