MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — Customers enjoying a bite to eat at O’Rourke’s Diner near closing time have become accustomed to seeing the tall young man silently and efficiently sweeping away debris from the dining area.
Luke Whalen sported a white Wesleyan University football T-shirt as he made his rounds Tuesday, Oct. 17, cleaning up after the breakfast and lunch waves at the tiny breakfast spot in Middletown’s North End neighborhood.
The 21-year-old Durham resident, who has autism, started working for owner Brian O’Rourke Aug. 1 through Middletown-based ClearWeave Careers, which “weaves people into the fabric of society and the workforce,” according to owner Ryan Casey.
The company helps connect adults like Whalen who are on the autism spectrum with employers willing to spend some extra time training a new worker in exchange for a loyal, focused and happy employee, said Casey, 42.
Autism and autism spectrum disorder are terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development often characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to Autism Speaks. ASD is estimated to affect more than 2 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide, according to Autism Speaks.
Whalen is a busy young man. Weekdays from 2 to 4 p.m., he helps the O’Rourke’s night crew break down boxes, take out the trash, set up silverware, clean table and chairs, and anything else needed to get the classic diner ready for business the next morning. Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Whalen washes dishes in the kitchen.
Whalen loves the work — and O’Rourke couldn’t hope for a better employee, he said.
“Luke is just a pleasure to have here. I know just what he’s going to give me every day. He gives me all he’s got,” said O’Rourke, as he watched him help unload watermelon and vegetables from the diner’s van earlier in the week.
“He’s got a Wesleyan shirt on because Wesleyan shirts are acceptable as O’Rourke’s shirts,” said O’Rourke, who counts many who coach and teach at the liberal arts university among his close friends. Whalen’s father Mike is the athletic director at the university and mother Karen is director of athletic fundraising.
“Luke is truly an inspiration to me,” O’Rourke said. “Luke has got so much more than all of us have. He really, really does.”
Casey agreed. “He has a great attitude and willingness to work. When people like Brian and the team at the diner show a willingness to be inclusive — then society is much better for it. The team at O’Rourke’s was really receptive right off the bat,” said Casey, a frequent customer.
While he was trying to scout out potential job sites for Whalen, Casey realized O’Rourke’s functions as a town meeting spot where people of all types converge. “I spent a month and a half getting to know Luke, what his capabilities are and what would be the best fit for employment,” Casey said. In the end I said, ‘I bet he would fit in here at the diner.'”
O’Rourke said for the first two weeks, Whalen came in one hour one day a week. During the second week, he added a second day. “Now we’ve gotten to the point where Luke knows his schedule better than I do,” O’Rourke said.
“I think people are getting to know him there and there is some familiarity, so it’s a social outlet, too, and that’s an important component for any job for my clients,” Casey said.
Whalen went to the Middlesex Transition Academy, located on Court Street in Middletown, a program that began in 2003 at Regional School District 13 that serves students with disabilities, ages 18 to 21, with opportunities to address their individual transition goals in an integrated, age-appropriate university environment, according to MTA.
Once her son aged out of the program, he had to apply for adult services through the state, which can take months to get up and running, Karen Whalen said. She learned about ClearWeave, a private company whose services she pays for out of pocket.
“They help you find employment and friendly employers who are willing to take a risk,” she said.
“When you couple that with someone like Brian O’Rourke, who is already a proponent of giving people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to work in a competitive work environment, it just made for a fantastic fit,” she said.
O’Rourke was very amenable to learning about Luke and the spectrum, Casey said. “I like to educate the managers, supervisors and owners so they can better get an acclimation process for the employee.”
Those with autism are often visual learners, Casey said. “If I have to explain something because he’s not getting it from telling him, I write down a list or draw a diagram.
“If you give him patience and be very concrete about what he’s supposed to do and say that early, if you give people on the spectrum a chance, they’re going to take a couple more weeks than the average employee, but then you’re going to get a great employee after,” said Casey, who has been in the field for eight years and running his own business for three.
“They’re loyal, they have a great attitude, they can be very focused,” he said.
O’Rourke called Whalen over to talk to him for a minute. “Next week, we’ll be making banana bread,” he said.
“I don’t see why not,” replied Whalen.
Casey, who has four employees and helps clients who live all around the state, often gets referrals from medical doctors. In the past two months, he’s gotten four clients jobs in the area, including in the kitchen at ION Restaurant in Middletown, the Dragon’s Lair game shop and Amazon in Wallingford and Honeywell in North Haven.
“Society has to adapt,” Casey said. “One out of 88 people are getting diagnosed now on the spectrum.”
Casey said many have trouble with communication, multitasking and “at certain places, sensory data is amplified, so they get too overwhelmed.” His staff also offers mock interviews to prepare clients, who often don’t find it comfortable to look people in the eye, remember to shake hands or introduce themselves.
“When you miss those social cues, you’re setting yourself up for failure,” he said. “We try to prepare them so they succeed in interviews, in orientation, and then we try to maintain that on site. We provide the support they need then we can step away.
“Luke has so much potential and it just takes a little finesse in the world to see him reach great heights,” Casey said.
“Companies are not set up to integrate those on the spectrum. That is why I am so in awe of Brian doing his best to make this work,” he said. “It is very forward-thinking and Middletown is lucky to have such a pioneer as a business owner here.”
For information on ClearWeave Careers, see http://clearweavejobs.com/
Information from: The Middletown Press, http://www.middletownpress.com