A Job Well Done : Special education and workplace training helped an autistic man find a place in society.His determination is keeping him there.
Punctuality is critical. “Twenty-six and a half minutes till lunch,” Paul Spassoff says. Then it’s 19 minutes. Finally at noon, he jumps up and heads for the break room of Kinko’s Copies where he works, leaving behind a visitor who is supposed to accompany him.
At precisely 12:30, he returns to his terminal to typeset resumes and letters. He is a moderately fast typist--58 words a minute--but it is his accuracy that is remarkable. He patiently checks medical terms in a cover letter-- antianginal, propanalol, hypoalkaline.
The written word means more to Paul than to most of us.
From the age of 18 months until he entered school at 5 1/2, Paul did not speak at all. If he used his voice, it was to scream. It was only in special school, by learning to write and read, that Paul grasped the concept of language and began to talk. The written word was his bridge to the outside world.
Paul, who has just turned 25, is autistic and mildly retarded. Autism, which affects the way the brain processes information, afflicts 350,000 Americans, according to the Autism Society of America.
Autism comes from the word “auto,” meaning self, and is characterized by self-absorption. For years, people believed that parental coldness caused autism. But recent studies have shown that autistic people have unusually small cerebellums, leading to the conclusion that autism is a congenital development problem. Researchers believe that damage to the cerebellum occurs late in pregnancy or soon after birth.
Autistic adults often depend on rigid routines, the way Paul depends on the clock. Frequently, they do not understand abstract concepts or emotions, but many are very bright. They often do not like to be touched, although some are affectionate. Their life expectancy is normal, but most will require some continual supervision, ranging from living with parents to institutionalization.
When Paul’s autism was diagnosed at age 3, his doctors gave him an 80% chance of ending up in an institution as an adult. He lives at home with his parents, but he is more independent now than anyone predicted. He rides the bus to and from work and earns $7.50 an hour at the typesetting job, which he has held for two years.
His parents credit Paul’s teachers and the special education laws in California for much of his success in finding a place in society. He was also helped by Goodwill Industries of Orange County, which found him the job at Kinko’s and sent a job coach to visit him regularly for the first 20 months.
But just as important to his success is Paul’s character. He has an extraordinary determination to reach out from the world he inhabits to make himself understood. Much as a grade schooler memorizes the multiplication tables, Paul memorizes rules and names and appropriate behavior.
Recently, when his younger brother, Michael, checked himself into the hospital with a collapsed lung, Paul was asked if he was worried.
“Yes, I think we are worried,” he answers, searching his memory. “Yes, because we’re sorry.”
Paul is the third of four children born to Vera and Stan Spassoff. Stan is an engineer who has his own consulting business at home. Vera works as a nutritionist for the Area Agency on Aging. They live in an elegant neighborhood shielded from the Huntington Beach thoroughfares by a high brick wall.
They spoke about Paul’s early years on a recent afternoon, frequently reaching an arm across to the other one’s chair to offer support.
“He was a gentle baby,” Vera Spassoff says. “He would sit in that crib, and he didn’t seem to need anyone, anything social.”
They say Paul spoke for a short time when he was about 18 months old, then fell silent. His parents were worried, but they assumed, at first, that he would begin speaking again soon.
When he started to walk, he developed some strange, habitual behaviors that did not stop no matter how often his parents told him “no.” He pulled cushions off the living room sofa, he poured milk out the window, he turned lights off whenever he left the room, even though other people needed them left on.
Shortly after his third birthday, his problem was diagnosed.
“Those were the black years,” says his mother. Paul required constant supervision. His parents were afraid that he would wander off and be unable to find his way home or tell anyone where he lived.
The couple began searching for a special school that would take Paul and teach him. He was enrolled at the Fundamental School in Los Angeles, where the family lived at the time. He was in a class of five students who were strapped to their chairs to keep them still enough to learn.
Vera visited the classroom several times and sat through the instruction as students painstakingly learned the names of colors, of foods. Gradually, Paul began to speak at home.
When Paul was 11, in 1978, the Spassoff family moved to Huntington Beach. Paul was enrolled in a mainstreaming program, but soon the school recommended that he be returned to special education.
“We thought it was a setback when he was taken out of the mainstreaming program,” Vera Spassoff says. But she says the move proved to be best because the program was more tailored for Paul’s needs.
He was also able to excel in intramural sports, such as walleyball, which is a version of volleyball that allows players to bounce the ball off the walls. Paul won several trophies.
He graduated from the special education program in 1987. Then, for two years, he was re-enrolled in a mainstream program at Huntington Beach High School. The program focuses on vocational skills and encouraged Paul’s interest in computers.
“They found what he could do well and, luckily, it was marketable,” his mother says.
Ansel Adams prints hang on the wall, softening the blocky red-white-and-blue Kinko’s decor. Photocopiers hum and the sun flashes in occasionally, reflecting off the cars running along Newport Boulevard.
“Sit down now,” Paul says to himself on a recent morning, “and don’t stare.”
It sounded like something a teacher or a parent would say, but Paul couldn’t remember where he learned that. He only knows he likes to stare.
He is a tall, thin man with bright brown eyes and polished shoes. He drapes his suit jacket each day over the back of his chair. His name tag identifies him as a “desktop publisher.”
Throughout the day at work, he repeated similar kinds of instructions to himself. Sometimes they are from a high school gym class or spelling lesson.
“Do you know about homonyms?” he asks. “Like flour or flower. One is a five-letter word for that white powder, like Bisquick. The other is like a leaf. Like a rose.”
Other times his instructions are about the job.
“It’s the customer’s job to stand behind the counter,” he says, demonstrating that he has learned the rules of the office. “Central does not deal with customers. Sir, the rear door is not working.”
His supervisor, Valerie Seeley, says he takes instructions very literally: “He’s very accurate, types very much verbatim.”
There are more complex jobs that Paul cannot do, she says, but he is good with resumes. Nine Kinko’s stores fax them to the Newport Beach office, where Paul works, and they are sent back to the branch offices via modem.
When Paul started working at Kinko’s, he took the work much too literally. Instructions written in the margins--"dash here,” for example--would find their way into the body of the resume. He was unwilling to ask for help.
“When I first started to see him, he would not initiate a conversation with anyone,” says his job coach from Goodwill, Catherine Bradehoft. She visited Paul twice a week to help him adjust to the job. Recently, Goodwill decided that Paul was able to work without a coach.
“When I left, he had gotten to the point of telling the customers, ‘Someone will be with you in just a moment,’ ” Bradehoft says. “If he heard a customer say something about a computer virus, he would walk over and say, ‘Can I help you with that?’ ”
She says Paul was very formal with her at first and would not make eye contact with her or with anyone in the office. He would not shake her hand in greeting.
Then, one day, after months of working together, Paul showed her his hands were chapped. “After that, we would hold hands for a minute when I would come or leave,” Bradehoft says. “For the next few months, he was like a flower. He was just blooming.”
Every evening, Paul talks on the phone to two friends from high school. Some nights he tapes the Roggin’s Heroes sports bloopers show or he works on his collection of oldies songs taped from the radio.
His favorite pop music stars are Sister Sledge and Olivia Newton-John and Johnny Mathis. He is a fan of country music but does not have favorite artists in that genre: “I think they’re all kind of the same.”
On a recent evening, Paul and his family attended a Goodwill awards banquet in Huntington Beach. Paul was honored as graduate of the year from Goodwill’s supported employment program in Orange County. In fact, he was one of five finalists for the national award.
Later, Vera talks about how much she loves her son the way he is and how grateful she is for how far he’s come. But a bit wistfully, she adds: “With his character, I wonder what he could have been.”