A design for working with autism

In the heart of White Plains’ pink brick and stone financial district lies a most unusual doll shop.

The cozy pastel-colored 750-square-foot space sells donated, slightly used, reconditioned American Girl dolls — most of them retired favorites like Kaya’aton’my and Felicity Merriman — for a portion of what they would cost on eBay.

The Girl Again store, which also teems with accessories, is catnip to Tricia Guldner, who sometimes visits with her 6-year-old, Elizabeth.

“This is a special treat for my daughter,” says the Eastchester resident. “We don’t have to go into the city to the store there, and the dolls are of excellent quality.”

Sales, however, are not the real point of the shop.

“We’re not in the doll business,” says Marjorie Madfis. “We’re in the job-skills business.”

A former IBM-er, Madfis is founding president of Yes She Can, a 3-year-old nonprofit designed to train autistic women for the workplace. So far, Girl Again, which opened under the Yes She Can aegis two years ago, has served 14 women between the ages of 17 and 27 who have been diagnosed with the autism spectrum disorder. The spectrum includes pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 American children has been identified with the autism spectrum disorder. He might be that numbers whiz who has trouble joining in at the company picnic. Or he may be severely handicapped. And it usually is a he. Only 25 percent of those identified are female. They are doubly, even triply challenged, Madfis says, because as with heart disease, autism research centers on the male. And because women are expected to be socially pleasing in the workplace, while people on the autism spectrum usually have trouble picking up on social cues and communicating. Being seen as “quirky” might cut it for men, she adds. Women, not so much.

Among the young women who’ve been identified with autism spectrum disorder is Madfis’ daughter Isabelle, who always dreamed of styling hair for American Girl — created 30 years ago by Pleasant Rowland to teach 8- to 11-year-olds history through a series of books and dolls of various backgrounds. (The Pleasant Company is now owned by Mattel.) At Girl Again, young women such as Isabelle learn to clean, repair, inventory, price, tag and display items. And yet, Madfis and her team of volunteers say that’s not enough.

“An important piece is what (autism expert) Brenda Smith Myles calls ‘the hidden curriculum,'” says Sheri Baron, a psychologist and volunteer whose practice centers on those with autism spectrum disorder. “There are people rules that aren’t articulated. Rules that are implied and inferred.” Rules that those with autism, who may be highly structured and hyper-focused, don’t intuit.

“Shifting gears is a problem for them,” says Patricia Rowan, a social worker and volunteer whose practice is also concerned with those on the autism spectrum.

So part of what Girl Again does is to teach workstyle skills — communicating with your peers, for instance, instead of always going to the supervisor.

There have been success stories like Cristina, who now works in a library two days a week, three hours a day. But Madfis says, “The people we target don’t get 40-hour-a-week jobs. It would be too much for them physically and emotionally.”

If there’s one thing that observing autism teaches you, however, it’s the central role of context in everyday life.

“We’re a diamond in the rough,” Rowan says with a smile.

“But,” adds speech therapist and volunteer Betty Walensky, “priceless.”

Yes She Can will host its first Advocates for Adults With Autism Awards at a March 29 breakfast (8 to 10 a.m.) at Manhattanville College’s Reid Castle in Purchase. Autism expert Brenda Smith Myles will receive The Professional Advocate Award and deliver the keynote –“Success in the Workplace: Yes We Really Can.” The Community Advocates Award will be presented to Judy Omidvaran of Westchester County and Bonnie Kaplan of Rockland County, co-founders of Families of Adults with Asperger’s & High Functioning Autism, a support and advocacy group. For more, visit YesSheCanInc.org/Awards.

Yes She Can is seeking board members with nonprofit experience to grow its organization. For more, visit YesSheCanInc.org.

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