Feel-Good Friday: Thanks to Fierce Parents With Vision, Adults With Autism Find Purpose and Independence

Evan and Denise rooting for the Bengals. (Credit: Denise Pearson)

According to Autism Speaks, Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism affects an estimated 1 in 36 children and 1 in 45 adults in the United States today.

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There is still much misunderstanding and misinformation about autism and ASD. Because of this, there are probably many cases that go undiagnosed. I am sure one of my brothers is probably on the spectrum, and he is now well into his 60s. 

One of the major misconceptions is that persons diagnosed with autism cannot live productive and independent lives. In this week's Feel-Good Friday, I highlight two families who raised their autistic sons to not only debunk these misconceptions, but give them powerful tools and resources to not just understand their condition and the unique way they navigate the world, but also empower other ASD children and adults to help themselves, to find employment, learn to interact in the workplace, and thrive in everyday life.

Florida's Rising Tide Car Wash was founded in 2013 when CEO John D'Eri saw his autistic son Andrew struggle with finding work. Because of their unique social challenges, statistics show that autistic adults have a 90 percent unemployment rate. So, D'Eri and his son Tom worked with business consultants to conceive the car wash model with the specific goal of giving Andrew and others like him not just a place to be employed, but where the individual could build skills necessary to finding and maintaining employment.

The family decided to start a car wash company known as Rising Tide Car Wash. Good News Movement took to social media to share the story of the family. "Like many with autism, Andrew D'Eri, at 24, had a hard time finding a suitable job. That's until his entrepreneur dad and older brother who recently finished business school, had an idea to open a car wash business in 2013 that would cater to their skill set," they wrote on Instagram.

Founder and CEO John D'Eri said, "Typically, people with autism are really good at structured tasks, following processes, and attention to detail. So we saw that they're really important skills that people with autism have that make them, in some case, the best employees you can have."

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Because of this success, the company has been profiled in national and international media and publications, including the "Today Show" and Forbes magazine. The company wrote on its website:

 As most families affected by autism often lose sleep over, John spent countless hours thinking about what Andrew would do when he was no longer there to support him. As Andrew grew up John started to see that although he was becoming a very capable young man, but there were virtually no opportunities for him after he aged out of the school system. Then in 2011, when Andrew was 21, John came up with the novel idea of buying a car wash to employ Andrew and others like him.

In 11 years, Rising Tide Car Wash has grown into two locations in Parkland, Florida, and 90 percent of their workforce is employees with autism, living up to its name and the aphorism, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

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Bruce and Denise Pearson are dear friends of mine who I met in California. They have three adult sons, and their firstborn son, Evan, is autistic; but you would never know that if you met him. In 2016, when I first got to know the Pearson family, Evan was 21. He had the most beautiful smile, and he greeted me with a firm handshake and direct eye contact. I have known other parents with autistic sons and daughters, so what the Pearsons have produced in Evan is nothing short of remarkable. 

I spoke with Denise on Friday about Evan's journey, and how she and Bruce helped to guide him into a young man who lives his life with joy, purpose, and independence, and who has not been shaped or defined by his autism diagnosis.


Unlike D'Eri, who appeared to tackle the particular hurdle of his son's employment and societal interaction when Andrew became an adult, the Pearsons set Evan on a path of integration with the neurotypical world soon after Evan was diagnosed as a young child. They were aided by another friend, who was an education and resource professional, and she encouraged them to include Evan in the sensory and outside world as early as possible. So, except for being a year early in the process, Evan was not lumped into special education in the public schools, but participated as a regular student with some hard-fought-for accommodations, which this friend helped the Pearsons to obtain. Denise said:

By 5th grade on, Evan was in full inclusion. 

So, I would say this: As a parent, I think I felt like we had a choice to make. We could either pursue academics or social development. You try to pursue both, but I think it's a little hard in the school system to fully develop both. We chose to develop social skills because you can always learn skills on the job. They can teach you, you know, the skill you need to know. What they can't teach you is to care about your coworker and those social skills that you need to have on a job.

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Even in our technological age, soft skills like eye contact, handshakes, and verbal communication still matter, especially during that crucial interview phase. The Pearsons made the choice to lean into Evan's socialization:

Evan was in marching band and concert bands, so, he was with a large group of people, because his band was over 100 people. So, he learned to navigate how to work in a team and because he was full inclusion, we were already working with teachers on accommodations, which gave us good training for when he got in the workplace. Accommodations are kind of what you need for any scenario.

Evan is now 29, and has held jobs successfully since high school. He volunteers in his church and his community, and he especially loves being part of the volunteer team for the Ironman Triathlon, held in St. George, Utah, every year.


He's kind of worked a little bit everywhere. He had a job at Ralphs [a California grocery chain], he worked at the YMCA, he worked for the California Conservation Corps. Then he was doing nature conservation work, and landscaping.


So, because the Pearsons focused on Evan's socialization, which allowed him to obtain and maintain work where he gained skills that led him to new positions and responsibilities, they ensured Evan could navigate the world successfully on his own. In 2019, the Pearsons moved to St. George, Utah, and Evan soon followed. Because of his parents' focus on socialization, and the skills and experience he acquired at his different places of employment, Evan is now a Parks Maintenance Worker Level 1 in the Parks and Recreation Division for the City of St. George. Denise said in wonder,

So I tell you, his story is something.

It is indeed. While there are challenges in employing individuals with autism, there are also great benefits that both Tom D'Eri and Denise have noted as pluses to hiring a neurodivergent employee. If you ever saw the film "The Accountant," about an autistic hit man (it's a fun ride), you'd know that autistic individuals often need to have a sense of completion. So, follow-through and completing tasks to specification is part of their makeup, and they are eager to please. Something that's not a part of their makeup? They don't bitch, and they don't throw shade. Denise explained:

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Evan is a non-complainer. Evan rarely takes time off sick time. He's very dedicated to his job. Evan is willing to take instruction. He doesn't talk back. He doesn't give attitude. He wants to please his boss. He wants his team to be happy with him. So, if they can give him the right direction and give him the tools to be successful, that's his entire world, 'cause he's looking for that positive feedback. 

Rising Tide Car Wash co-founder Tom D'Eri expressed these same sentiments with different words (in the video interview below):

Our employees with autism, they absolutely, positively need structure and clarity in the expectations of the role, in how they do a role. But when they have that, they're exceptional employees. 

But every employee needs that. Every employee needs clarity. When there's ambiguity in a role, we tend to focus on the wrong things or get frustrated or stressed out for no real reason. And so, we need to frame the things that people with autism need, not as accommodations, special accommodations  for this person, but as insights into making our businesses better for everyone who works there.  

Denise seconded that emotion in describing Evan's past work experiences, and in his current position:

A lot of people who work with him have said that the biggest deal is that he just doesn't have an attitude. He doesn't have a bad attitude. He wants to please and he knows when things are going well. When he gets good feedback, I can see such a boost for his personality and just how he feels about himself. You know, we all want to feel like we're doing a good job and contributing. He likes to contribute. So, when the community, when he's doing something and the community says, "Yeah, we feel you're doing a good job, you're making a difference, the park looks great." He loves that.

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What a powerful testament to the D'Eri and Pearson families. They created a world where autistic individuals can grow, thrive, and learn to be a productive part of life and society, then gave them a launch pad to make themselves better, and in turn, make society better. One of the Rising Tide Car Wash employees featured in the video below shared that having this job has allowed her to set the goal of saving, so that she can travel the world. Evan Pearson marvels that through his job he not only has medical insurance, sick and vacation time, but that he has a sense of investment and rootedness to the community. So much so, that Evan recently bought a home of his own. 

Tom D'Eri also said in the video that over 100 of their employees have moved on to other employment within the Florida community. D'Eri feels that more than his employees earning a paycheck, he hopes that, 

They earn a sense of self-worth and a sense of self confidence. That they know that this isn't just the only job for them, there's a lot that this life has to offer them, and this is just the beginning.

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