How Chicago-Area Nonprofit Have Dreams Is Helping People with Autism Find Jobs and Live Independent Lives

Networking and interviewing for that first job out of college can be tough on any recent graduate. Add Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to the mix and it becomes more challenging. Difficulty understanding social cues and the question of whether or not to disclose you have ASD, and require simple accommodations, make landing that dream job more complicated. 

“My job search had been demoralizing,” said Alex Towers, 25, of Glencoe. “I was cool about it but deep down, my heart fell into the Grand Canyon.” Still, Alex, who has ASD and aspired to be a librarian, didn’t give up. 

Alex prepared for his job search at Have Dreams, a non-profit organization in Park Ridge and Evanston that teaches children, teens and adults with ASD the skills they need to socialize, communicate and lead independent lives—skills that require more time for those with autism to master. Through Have Dreams Academy, a job readiness program, Alex learned how to interview and participated in internships. 

It’s a safe space, because the employers have partnered with Have Dreams, Alex’s mom Ariel explained, and understand that the workers have ASD. 

Alex Towers at work as a library aide

“They’re giving feedback to the caseworkers and students in real time,” she said. “Kids are learning how to comport themselves in a workplace in the moment. It’s invaluable.” 

The program helped Alex realize when your boss says, “Can you drop what you’re doing and jump into another project,” they’re really telling you, not asking you to do it. 

“As neurotypicals, we get the nuance or we try to or we know there’s some nuance,” Ariel said. “Whereas autistic people see things much more starkly in black and white, without gray, and life exists really in the gray zone.” 

It’s the reason Alex discloses he has ASD during interviews. That way, employers can come from a place of understanding, Ariel said, rather than judgement.

Alex began volunteering at libraries as a teen and excelled in graduate school—he holds a master’s degree in Library Information Sciences from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

“I always loved the predictability of libraries and the fact that no startling things were going to happen there,” he said. 

Have Dreams Academy prepared him for the next step: securing gainful employment. During visiting day at Have Dreams Academy, his luck changed when he impressed a representative from the Sears School in Kenilworth. Based on his credentials, experience and organizational skills, she recommended him for a part-time library aide position at the school and he landed the job. He also works part-time at another library and volunteers.

“Alex was able to show himself as somebody who could be of value to the school,” Ariel said. 

Alex insists “It was a case of being in the right place at the right time.” 

For Alex, Have Dreams has always been the right place. He began participating in its afterschool programming at 14. The curriculum is specific to each individual’s needs and available throughout their lifetime. 

“It’s a hallmark of Have Dreams and why it’s so unique,” said Have Dreams director of development Bobbi Goldman, who is among the organization’s founding families.

Have Dreams serves the entire Chicago area with the following services:

  • Afterschool programming
  • Workforce training, internships and employment counseling
  • A comprehensive adult day program
  • Best practices trainings for teachers and other professionals
  • Mental health counseling
  • Downloadable social skills activities to do at home

Fees for all programming, except counseling, are subsidized and based on a sliding scale. 

Humble beginnings

Have Dreams was founded in 1996 by Kris Johnsen, an early childhood special education teacher, and the parents of her students, after they searched for programs to prepare preschoolers with ASD for adulthood and came up empty.  

“Nothing existed outside of clinical settings,” recalled Johnsen, CEO and founder of Have Dreams in Park Ridge and Evanston. “It wasn’t social or community-based and those things were important to us.” 

So, they partnered with a child psychiatrist and two psychologists at the University of Chicago and developed a curriculum of social skills together. Have Dreams held its first afterschool program in a donated room above an ice rink in Park Ridge. A year later, the non-profit moved to its own space in town and added music therapists, speech pathologists and other specialists to its programming. As the organization grew, the number of children diagnosed with ASD skyrocketed. Today one in 44 children have autism. 

With a generous grant from the McCormick Foundation in 2008, Have Dreams opened a second facility in Evanston with a fully operating Walgreens onsite to assist with job training. 

Alex is grateful for the life-changing skills he learned at Have Dreams, the friends he’s made and the professional connections that resulted in a job offer. Plus, he looks forward to going to work each day. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

How to help:

Donate to support Have Dreams. Listen to this segment on Reset with Sasha-Ann Simons on WBEZ to learn more about the importance of social programs, diagnostic treatment and services for people with autism in the Chicago area and learn how you can better support them during Autism Acceptance Month and all year long.

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melanie kalmar

Melanie Kalmar is a freelance journalist specializing in business, healthcare, human interest and real estate. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with her family.