Having an “obsession” is a common occurrence for people who have autism. Obsessions can provide structure and help people cope with the uncertainties of life. Some people who find social interaction difficult may use their special interests as a way to start conversations.
Shmuel Emanuel is a 23-year-old man with autism and other challenges who is obsessed with cars. He is not yet able to read, write, tell time or count. However, he knows every car, key and cell phone out there. He has obsessed about cars, keys, phones, and cleaning since toddler age. His absolute favorite car is a silver Jeep Laredo.
“An example” of his obsessional behavior, recalls his mother Dvorah Emanuel, “is when I would take my children to the grocery store [he is No. 5 of 6]. I always avoided the candy/cookie aisle with them and went down the neutral cleaning-supply aisle. Once Shmuel came along, that was no longer an option — he whined for mops and soaps the way the others did for candy.”
When Emanuel was transitioning from high school, he was fortunate to enter a program that envisioned his obsession with cars in a positive way.
That program, called GADOL — Giving Adults Daily Opportunities for Living —provides vocational training and places participants in customized employment in which their interests and skills are matched with a company that can use them. GADOL is a program of Keshet, an organization that serves the Greater Chicago Jewish community with a number of educational, recreational, vocational, residential and social programs for people with disabilities.
Abbie Weisberg, Keshet’s executive director, knew that working in an environment with cars would be extremely motivating for Shmuel. So she approached one of the owners of Evanston Subaru, a large dealership in Skokie, IL, about creating an internship opportunity for Emanuel in which he would be supported with job coaching. She explained that Emanuel simply adores cars — and that working in a car dealership would be his dream job.
At first, owner Rob Paddor hesitated. His concern was that the car dealership’s environment is an extremely busy one — with customers shopping for new and used cars, seeking auto financing and coming in to the service center. Employees work at fast pace, and Paddor was concerned that someone with autism might not be able to keep up. But he was willing to give Emanuel a chance, and he agreed to at least meet him. The meeting was arranged like a job interview. Emanuel answered Paddor’s questions, and when asked what his favorite car is, Emanuel surprisingly and very socially appropriately answered, “Subaru.” That was five years ago — and Emanuel’s internship has since transformed into paid, full-time employment.
Paddor runs a tight operation and doesn’t tolerate dust on any of the cars in his showroom. Emanuel’s tasks include wiping down those cars, which he does expertly, and also keeping the customer lounge, that serves snacks and drinks, clean and free of trash. “Shmuel loves putting on his uniform,” says Paddor. “And customers appreciate seeing him.”
“The staff is so supportive of him, and go the extra mile to make him feel valued, and successful,” says Dvorah. “They always have positive reports for me. He no longer needs any outside assistance — job coach or support staff — the dealership staff have taken on those roles as needed.”
Recently, Paddor and Emanuel were recognized at Keshet’s Employer Appreciation Lunch. Emanuel stood before a crowded room, proudly sharing about his work at Evanston Subaru.