Mother of Son With Autism Leaves Behind Law Practice to Help Those on the Spectrum
Ilene Lainer was an attorney with decades of experience in labor and employment law. Seventeen years ago, she put her career on hold when her son, Ari, was diagnosed with autism.
“There was very little information on autism that was reliable, and there were very services,” Lainer told Today in a report this month. “We tried to get him help. And it was difficult to understand what the help should be. We knocked on the doors of 22 nursery schools before one would take him. And that frustration led me to want to do something to make a difference. And I wanted to make it better not only for us, but for other people.”
Working with entrepreneur Laura Slatkin (also the mother of a child with autism), Lainer founded NEXT for Autism, a nonprofit that has been building programs for people on the autism spectrum for the past seventeen years.
“One day, a leader in the autism community asked me what I saw for Ari’s future,” Lainer recalled. “And I completely blanked. And so our work began to focus on how do we ensure that young adults can change from being a student into an employee? How do we ensure they have a joyful life?”
To achieve that goal, NEXT for Autism started two public charter schools, and created a center offering comprehensive services for people with autism. In 2011, they collaborated with other organizations to initiate Project SEARCH Autism Enhancement, which offers employment training for young adults on the autism spectrum.
“We created this program so that young adults with autism would have the opportunity to learn to work,” Lainer said. “You can have someone who’s very verbal, with really challenging social skills. You can have someone who’s not very verbal, but is great at patterns and schedule. We have to teach to the way that the person learns to be able to shine a spotlight on their strengths.”
Lainer noted that people with autism entering the workforce sends a powerful message that individuals on the spectrum can be just as talented and capable as their non-autistic peers.
“When they go and they get a job somewhere else, they impact and change that entire workplace, because the people who interact with them understand that people with autism are capable. We often underestimate them, and if we give them a chance, we’d be amazed.”