When Tom D’Eri recently took the microphone at the United Nations in New York to detail his experiences working with those with autism, his knowledge and composure belied his 24 years.
He sat before Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and various political and corporate leaders recounting his family’s crusade to launch Rising Tide Car Wash, a Parkland-based enterprise that helps young people with autism build careers and achieve independent lifestyles.
“Gatherings like these help spread the message of how valuable people with autism can be to a workforce,” D’Eri said. “In my family’s business, our staff of 35 people with autism makes up 80 percent of our total staff; they helped us turn around a struggling car wash that two years ago was washing only 35,000 cars a year and today is washing more than 130,000 cars annually.”
D’Eri, of Fort Lauderdale, is co-founder of Rising Tide, along with his father, John D’Eri. The business recently celebrated its second anniversary. He was invited to speak at the United Nations during the eighth annual World Autism Awareness Day, which focused on employment and asked businesses to commit to employing those with autism.
“Was I nervous?” he asked, laughing. “I wasn’t scared. But speaking to a room of Fortune 500 corporate executives is different from speaking to a room of parents. I invited them to come along with us and learn from what we’re doing.”
The D’Eris were inspired to build the business by Tom’s brother Andrew, who is 22 and on the spectrum.
John D’Eri, who plans to open a second car wash in Margate next year, said the self-sustaining business encourages other families to create similar ventures.
“The idea was to create something that would give Andrew dignity,” he said. “The components of dignity are a job, a sense of self-worth and capability, a group of friends who are just like you. I want him to have a life of independence.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 people has an autism spectrum disorder. With 35 of their 43 employees on the autism spectrum, the D’Eris know that when properly trained, people with autism excel at tasks involving repetition and structure.
It’s a first job for many. They learn the social dynamics of how to interact in the workplace, accept feedback, take a concern to an employer, and the importance of being on time. Their business model breaks the car washing process into 46 steps, with side work done methodically as well.
“Fold towels, fill the bottles, take out the trash, clean the bathrooms,” Tom D’Eri said. “We figured it out by trial and error; there is no blueprint or manual. We’re creating that manual now.”
Tom D’Eri said he has seen big changes in the employees with autism, including Andrew. For example, as he prepared to leave for his speaking engagement at the U.N., something unexpected happened:
“When I told Andrew goodbye, he said, ‘Good luck, Tom, have fun,’ and he gave me a big hug,” he said. “Never, ever, has he done something like that before.”
Deborah Work can be reached at email@example.com.
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