- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (AP) — Austin Love enjoys books, anime and movies. He’s a 16-year-old at Naperville North who has autism, and Austin says he wouldn’t change a thing about his condition, his world or his life.

But his mom would.

Kristy LaCrosse says she worries Austin won’t find a job to suit his interests and abilities once he completes high school or college.

Austin is a great kid; he’s going to contribute to society,” Ms. LaCrosse said. “We just don’t know how.”

Ms. LaCrosse says the world doesn’t offer enough ways for people with autism to work, be social, or make a mark. So she created one. And she called it “Have A Happy.”

The fledgling business is an online gift shop, offering coffee mugs, water bottles and T-shirts stamped with the optimistic and open-ended phrase “Have A Happy,” a saying used by Ms. LaCrosse’s father dating back to the 1960s.

Ms. LaCrosse, 43, and Austin co-founded the company that eventually aims to employ others who have autism, get its products placed in major stores, and spread encouragement through simple gestures and kind words like “Have A Happy” day.

“It’s about optimism. It’s about buying something and saying, ‘Here, I hope you have a happy,’” Ms. LaCrosse said. “You could get it for anything that you’re trying to help somebody celebrate.”

Parents creating jobs

Autism advocates are celebrating the actions of Ms. LaCrosse and other parents who find creative ways to help loved ones put their skills to use.

“There are a lot of parents and grandparents that have come up with unique ways to help their son or daughter get employment,” said Kim Bus, spokeswoman for Little Friends, a Naperville nonprofit that serves children and adults with autism and developmental disabilities. “It’s always fascinating to see.”

People with autism, a spectrum disorder of brain development that affects social interaction and communication, can succeed as employees but might need accommodations, experts say. Some need visual aids to explain tasks; others need extra breaks to move around or fewer distractions.

“For many with autism, they’re really good workers and they’re interested in working but may need supports in terms of social skills or soft skills of working with others,” said Lisa Goring, executive vice president of programs and services for the nonprofit Autism Speaks.

Small businesses, corporations and employment programs through social service agencies all offer those supports, but Ms. LaCrosse thought it best to start a new venture to provide a “real work situation” for Austin, a voracious reader who does best with written directions and a clear understanding of what’s next.

“I’ve seen his confidence and the pride that he’s taking,” Ms. LaCrosse said. “In the beginning, he’d be like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ and now I can say, ‘I need you to do this,’ and he already knows.”

Training to work

Ms. LaCrosse has worried that Austin Love, her son who gets his last name from her first husband, won’t find a job after school. That’s not an unfounded fear; people with autism often are unemployed.

A 2012 study cited by the Autism Society found 35 percent of young adults with autism did not have a job or education after high school. And among all people with disabilities, only 16.8 percent were employed in June 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As Ms. LaCrosse builds Have A Happy, she’s involving Austin in every step — checking in inventory, packaging mugs and water bottles, personalizing boxes with orange “Have A Happy” stickers, and interacting with people when shipping products, one of his least favorite jobs.

“These individuals are great employees. They tend to stick with companies once they’re trained,” Ms. LaCrosse said about people with autism. “So for me, it’s all about education and training.”

At sites including Palatine and Northbrook, the disability service organization Clearbrook provides training for high-functioning people with autism before they seek jobs in the community and supported employment for those who need additional help, said Ilene Rosenberg, director of community employment services. The organization also places some people with autism into an internship program at Northwestern University in partnership with another autism resource, Have Dreams.

Getting real-life job experience and building habits such as arriving on time are key elements of employment training for people with autism, said Kristina Johnsen, executive director of Have Dreams. In one such program, Have Dreams places people with autism on the team of one of its neighbors, a small Evanston Bakery called ILOVESWEETS.

“It cannot be an act of charity,”Ms. Johnsen said. “It has to make good business sense.”

‘Happy’ in business

Less than a year after she launched Have A Happy, the venture is making business sense for Ms. LaCrosse.

Online sales have grown each month, and Have A Happy items are available in two stores, Mail Works at 1807 S. Washington St. in Naperville and re: Design in Chehalis, Washington, in the West Coast state where Ms. LaCrosse grew up.

The business remains largely online, but it has sold 600 mugs — its most popular item — since starting last summer. And Austin has begun to make the sales pitch. His mom said he once sold a baby onesie to one of his teachers before onesies were available on the company’s website, but she found a supplier and made it work.

“I want him to have that input,” Ms. LaCrosse said. “I want him to be thinking about things and talking to people.”

This month, which is Autism Awareness Month, Have A Happy is donating 10 percent of its sales to Autism Speaks. And for an early order of T-shirts, Have A Happy used another business that employs people with autism.

Color Burst, a screen printing shop in Downers Grove, is affiliated with Little Friends, and it offers the type of routine work that suits the autistic mind because it follows a predictable process, experts say.

“People with autism have a lot of unique skills,” Ms. Johnsen said. “They love routines. They don’t mind repetition. They have great attention to detail. Tasks that are repetitive for them are not boring.”

Austin said one of his favorite tasks for Have A Happy is checking in inventory after he and his mother accept shipments to the basement-turned-warehouse of their Naperville home. His mother says his personality provides the optimism on which the business is based.

When Austin was diagnosed with autism at age 3, Ms. LaCrosse said, everything in their lives shifted.

“We’ve always just tried to tell him that things are just a little bit different for him,” Ms. LaCrosse said. “It’s not less, it’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just a little bit different, and that’s OK.”

The message sunk in with Austin, who hopes his experience with Have A Happy will help him get into teaching or science. The challenges of balancing school with up to 15 hours a week of work are OK by Austin.

“To be honest, I’m fine with being autistic,” he said. “I just have this trouble thinking about what could have been, which is why I’m one of the few people that in the question if I could change anything about my life, I would say no. I’m like the person with other people, I’m very shy, but in a small group of friends and family, I’m really interactive.”

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Source: (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald, http://bit.ly/1IDRtJA

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Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com

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