I am blessed to be the father of a wonderful teenage son named Alex, who has high functioning autism. Our family has countless stories and experiences describing how Alex has touched our lives and made us better people, but that is not the subject of this post. The words you are about to read are meant to pay homage to the incredible kindness of people who have come into my son’s life this year, the gifts they have given him and the lessons I have drawn from these experiences.
A Difficult Decision
About a year ago, when our son was eighteen and in his senior year of high school, my wife and I made the difficult decision to delay college for Alex. He is very intelligent, but we felt his social and communications challenges would make the college experience overwhelming for him until he matured and developed the skills for coping with the demands associated with furthering his education. While we see a college education in his future, we felt that life skills training and some sort of paid employment would be the appropriate next steps in his development.
As my wife researched life skills programs, I began talking to companies in the Atlanta area about employment opportunities for young adults on the autism spectrum. The conversations were frustrating to say the least, as few companies were willing to take what they saw as a risk in employing adults with autism. I knew if they would only give him an opportunity, they would see Alex’s many positive qualities and how he could be a model employee with the right level of support.
“Will you give this young man an interview?”
My fruitless search took me up until the month before Alex’s high school graduation and I had very little to show for my efforts. In a somewhat desperate move, I sent an email with Alex’s resume and a list of his skills to about fifty friends who are senior level leaders or business owners in the northern Atlanta suburbs where we live, asking them to keep their eyes open for job opportunities suitable for Alex. Every single person replied with kind wishes, many offered prayers and all of them made a promise to keep their eyes open for him, but no real job opportunities materialized.
My wife and I were feeling a little desperate and frustrated as the days until graduation rapidly flew by and we still did not have the job portion of the post-high school plan in place for our son. On the Wednesday before Alex’s graduation, I received a call from the HR Manager at a nearby retail store, which is part of a well-established international retail company. She had received Alex’s resume from someone at their corporate office with a simple request: “Will you give this young man an interview?” The HR Manager asked if Alex could come to the store that Friday afternoon for an interview with the Store Manager. I quickly said yes and asked if I could attend the interview to support Alex. As I hung up the phone, I smiled to myself as I remembered that one of the recipients of my email blast a few weeks before was a friend from our parish who is a senior leader in this company. The first act of kindness from a friend had opened the door to a possible job for our son.
“When can you start?”
At 3:00 p.m. on the Friday before Alex’s high school graduation, we were sitting in the store manager’s office for my son’s first ever job interview. Fifteen minutes later, the store manager smiled at Alex and offered him a job as a Store Associate at $10 per hour and asked him when he could start. My son gave me a worried look, unsure of what to say, and I quickly accepted on his behalf. This store manager took a chance and decided to hire Alex, even though his company had no formal program for employing adults on the autism spectrum. The second act of kindness, from the store manager we had never met before, gave my son the gift of employment.
“I know this probably isn’t how you typically do things…”
As we walked down the hall to the office of the HR Manager to have Alex fill out the required paperwork, I asked her for a favor. “I know this probably isn’t how you typically do things, but would you consider typing a few sentences stating that you are offering Alex a job on your company letterhead? While we have been in your store this afternoon, our family has flown in from all over the country for Alex’s graduation and they are waiting for us at our house. It would be wonderful if he could walk in with his offer letter to show our family.” The HR Manager brushed aside her tears and happily agreed to my request. Alex walked into our house thirty minutes later with his job offer letter in hand to show his relatives. He had a proud smile on his face as he basked in the glow of excited family members hugging him for this major milestone. This third act of kindness from the HR Manager helped my son make the connection that he had accomplished something very significant by landing his first job.
“I definitely understand, as I have two nephews…”
About ten days later, our new high school graduate was scheduled for his first in-store training session. Being the “helicopter parent” of a child with special needs, I prepared a one-page summary of coaching tips for Alex’s new co-workers and supervisors to help him be successful in his new job—and of course I made ten copies to share! Upon our arrival, an older gentleman named Joe approached me, saying he had been assigned to Alex as his in-store coach. I quickly pulled Joe aside and reviewed my coaching tips. He listened respectfully to everything I had to share, and then sheepishly said, “Mr. Hain, I really appreciate this great information about your son. I have two nephews with autism and those boys mean the world to me. I promise to take good care of Alex and help him do well here.” I was somewhat shocked as I absorbed these words and I knew instinctively that my son would be in great hands. I left the store filled with gratitude for Joe and the store’s thoughtfulness in pairing this good man with my son. This fourth act of kindness showed the thoughtfulness of the store’s management team and HR in selecting Joe as Alex’s coach and ensured the likelihood of Alex’s success with an understanding man like Joe to guide him.
A Legacy of Leadership
Alex got off to a great start in his new job, in large part due to Joe and the employees of the store who quickly adopted Alex and made him feel welcome and supported. Joe even shared with me one day when I picked Alex up after work that he was one of their best employees, saying that he “was always on time, did everything asked of him, never ‘gossiped at the water cooler’ and asked for more work upon the completion of his tasks.” Who would not value this kind of employee? Alex even won a customer service award in his fourth month on the job when a customer sent a note to the manager praising him for his assistance in loading a purchase into her car.
A few months ago, I was at an awards luncheon where the former Chairman and CEO of the company where my son works was given a lifetime achievement award for his legacy of excellent leadership and his contributions to the Atlanta community. As I listened to this well-respected leader talk about the importance of leadership and how the company treated its team members, I could clearly see the example this former CEO set being followed by the management team in my son’s store. I had a profound desire to thank this man for the legacy of his leadership, but quickly dismissed the idea as there were seven hundred people between us.
As I began making my way out of the luncheon, still thinking about a way to thank this leader, I ran into him as I rounded a corner outside the ballroom where the event was held. Feeling emboldened at this unexpected opportunity, I walked up, shook his hand and asked if he would like to hear a brief story. He gave me a curious look and said OK, likely thinking I was a disgruntled customer (he still serves on the company’s Board of Directors). I told him about how Alex was hired, how well he had been supported and sincerely thanked him for the legacy of his leadership in impacting the store manager’s decision to hire Alex. I also shared how this job helped my son gain much-needed confidence and self-esteem. He teared up and thanked me for sharing Alex’s story, then asked for the store manager’s name as well as Alex’s full name. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but we noticed the next week that Alex started receiving more hours at work. The fifth act of kindness is reflected in the leadership philosophy of this CEO and how his example and passion for treating people well impacted the hiring decision of the store manager who took a chance on Alex.
As I write this, Alex is in his eighth month of employment at the store and thriving. Upon reflection, there are several lessons I have learned from Alex’s job experience which have had a profound affect on me and my family:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If I had not sent the email asking my network to keep Alex in mind, this job would not have been possible.
- Trust in the essential goodness of people. Several absolute strangers have come out of nowhere this year to offer friendship, prayers, support and patience in opening doors for Alex and helping him thrive in his first job.
- Practice random acts of kindness. Do (unexpected) charitable acts for those we may encounter that may make a significant and unforeseen difference in their lives…like the kind acts performed for my son.
- It is important to invite people into your life and share your struggles, not just your triumphs. Most of us hear about all of the great news from our circle of friends, but how often do we hear about difficulties and challenges? Sharing ‘real life’ issues like Alex’s job search can possibly open the door to solutions we are not expecting.
- Go with your instincts. My wife and I knew Alex was not ready for a college experience at this time in his life, and bucked all conventional wisdom and the expectations of everyone we know in choosing life skills training and job experience as the next step for him after high school. His obvious happiness, growing mastery of essential life lessons and increasing self-confidence have been very validating for us.
- God has a plan. Even though it was difficult to understand in the moment, God was clearly at work in all of the little acts that came together to create this opportunity for our son.
A Final Act of Kindness
I hope all of us will reflect on this series of events woven together by the kindness of others in their efforts to help my son and consider how we might, in turn, make a difference in the lives of those we encounter each day. I know Alex’s experiences this year have had a profound impact on me and my family, which will not soon be forgotten. There is one final act of kindness that deserves to be shared. It is perhaps the best of them all. For the first time in his life, Alex is buying Christmas gifts for his family with his own money—the money he earned from his new job. He has taken a special pride in being able to do this on his own for the people he loves and is the perfect end to this little Christmas story. This final act of kindness was that the young man, who benefited so much from the kind acts of others, is reflecting their kindness back to the people in his life during this special time of year. Goodness, generosity and kindness are not the exclusive gifts of those who are “normal” and strong, but also of those in our society we often marginalize and overlook because they are not just like us.
Advent Blessings to you!
Editor’s Note: Would you like to learn more about Randy Hain’s latest book? Special Children, Blessed Fathers: Encouragement for Fathers of Children with Special Needs (Foreword by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput) is now available in both hardcover and paperback through Amazon.com, EmmausRoad.org and your local Catholic bookstore. All of Randy Hain’s books are available through Amazon and would make wonderful Christmas gifts.
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