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October is most notably known as the month little goblins scramble door to door begging for something sweet. While it may not be as widely known, the President of the United States has also deemed October as National Disability Employment Awareness month Ė a time committed to educating people, agencies and employers about the potential of hiring people with disabilities. But it wasnít a date on a calendar or a national declaration that prompted one Spring Valley businessman to open the door of opportunity for a young man with autism.
Meet Chris Liebold, 20, of Spring Valley. For nearly four months, Chris has been employed by Don Lanning, proprietor of Donís IGA, the local grocery store. Some may take such an opportunity for granted. Not Chris and mom, Janet Vreeman, who was thrilled to learn that her son was offered a job at the store.
"I think itís wonderful for employers to hire people with disabilities," Janet said. "Weíre happy that we can keep him in town with us," she said. But, the journey to employment has been a long one for Chris and his family.
His mother diagnosed him with autism, ironically, in the early 80s. "We knew something wasnít right when Chris was very young," said Janet. Her first-born didnít communicate in a typical fashion. After scores of tests at the Mayo Clinic, a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder was offered up along with a prescription for Ritalin, according to Janet.
"As soon as Iíd give him a pill, heíd just spit it right out," she said. It wasnít until watching television drama St. Elsewhere that the pieces began falling into place. It was an episode that would change her life. The program depicted a young child who was Autistic. He didnít speak, but communicated by waving his hand in the direction of what he wanted. It was a very familiar scenario in the Liebold home.
"When Chris wanted a drink of water, heíd wave his hand by the cupboard until Iíd figure out what he wanted," Janet recalled.
Trying to anticipate Chrisís wants and needs took extra time and effort. "We just lived with it for a long time," said Janet. An official at school suggested Chris undergo further testing at Gunderson Clinic in LaCrosse. Janet remembers that day vividly. "The doctor asked me what I thought was wrong with Chris and I said Ďheís autisticí," she said. The doctor confirmed her diagnosis -- a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life.
Autism, which occurs in 1 in 500 people, is the result of a neurological disorder that affects how the brain functions. It is far more prevalent in boys than in girls and primarily impacts the normal development of social interactions and communications skills. The condition was brought more to the forefront in the past several years with the movie Rainman, staring Dustin Hoffman. In the film, Hoffman portrays an Autistic adult who has difficulties relating to the outside world and who thrives on repetition and routine, both typical behaviors of autism. Other misunderstood behaviors include repeated body movements, such as rocking or hand flapping, unusual responses to people and situations, enhanced memory function and a resistance to changes in routine.
While itís not clear what caused Chrisís autism, Janet theorizes that a difficult birth played a key role. What is clear and probably most misunderstood is that autism is not a mental illness. Children who live with the condition are not unruly kids who choose not to behave.
"I want everyone to understand that although these kids have special needs, they also have feelings," said Janet, who along with daughter Heidi, 14, and husband, Bill, work hard at offering a nurturing and supportive environment for Chris.
By all accounts, theyíve done a good job. Chris graduated from Kingsland High School earlier this year. During the interview, he proudly paged through his own personal photo album containing pictures from the event, quickly reciting the who's who in every shot. And it became obvious that he wanted to keep things moving along.
It was Wednesday, the night that his social skills group met and he didnít want to be late. The movie scheduled for this weekís meeting is entitled "Believing in Yourself," Chris reported. He rattled off a list of topics from past sessions, some more than a year ago (people with autism sometimes display an uncanny ability to remember minute details from the past). He definitley looks forward to his weekly group session, which along with hobbies of country music, swimming, riding bike and now a job, have helped Chris assimilate into the community.
Don Lanning first learned of Chris when approached by teachers at Kingsland High School during Chrisís junior and senior years. Assisted by the Private Industry Counsel and various social services organizations, the teachers worked to place Chris in a work environment, for a couple of hours each day, which would help build some important life skills. The concept wasnít entirely new for Lanning. He had participated with the school in prior years, but Chris was the first student to be offered a position with the store after he graduated.
"I could have cried," said Janet, when she learned of the 30 hour-per-week opportunity for Chris at Donís IGA.
When asked how he likes the job, Chrisís answer is short and sweet. "Good," he said.
While on the job, Chris follows a checklist of duties, which includes stocking shelves, carrying out groceries as well as a variety of janitorial duties. Occasionally he gets to help out with something he considers to be the "best" job.
"Tuesdays and Thursdays, unloading trucks," said Chris. He even has special customers who request him to carry out their groceries.
"He always knows my car," said one customer, who said she enjoys having Chris deliver groceries to her vehicle.
"He fills a gap for us here," said Lanning. "Heís capable of performing the functions of the job and he has the right personality. He does a good job for us."
Co-workers and customers alike have been supportive, according to Lanning. "I think the public appreciates him working here and employees seem to band around him," he said.
With a national unemployment rate of nearly 70 percent for people with disabilities, it represents a great untapped resource, according to Dave Schwartzkopf, Executive Director of the Southeastern Minnesota Center for Independent Living.
"People who have a job tend to have a higher self-esteem," he said. "They have more control over their own lives." Schwartzkopfís theory states that employers who invest in people with disabilities will ultimately reap a good return on that investment. "People who have meaningful employment are more productive people and are able to give back to a community," he said.
Thanks to the support of Don Lanning and employees of Donís IGA, Chris is on his way to leading a productive life. "I would like to find more people like Chris," Lanning said.