Autism and the Push for Work: The Bigger Piece Aims to Build Crucial Employment Skills

The Bigger Piece aims to build a better path to employment.

Deb Rycus
Heather Ohl works with Mason Mattei (left) and Ryan Stephenson as they create puppy starter kits.

A staggering number of adults with autism spectrum disorder remain unemployed or underemployed, cited as high as 85 percent. Heather Ohl, a longtime autism advocate, says state educational services dwindle after age 18, giving adults on the spectrum fewer work opportunities. In January, Ohl founded The Bigger Piece—a business that gives them the chance to practice crucial employment skills. The key? Puppies.

Ohl’s vision for an online retail store came to life during a conversation with breeder Melissa Farmer. Pandemic puppy inquiries were up, leaving Farmer little time to create and assemble kits of blankets, dog treats and toys to go home with adoptees. Ohl, owner of The Missing Piece—a company dedicated to coaching people on the spectrum in life skills, academics and employment—knew her clients could produce and sell the puppy “go-home” bags. She also knew the process could teach valuable skills in time management, task initiation, sustained focus and more. “They’ll learn the skills they need to make each product, but the bigger piece of it is that they’re going to learn how to be an employee.”

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Farmer, mom to a college-aged son with autism, jumped at the chance to help young adults build job skills. Like Ohl, she pushes back against preconceived ideas about which careers make sense for people with autism. She remembers school staff discouraging her son Judah’s interest in graphic design in favor of lower-paying, rote-based jobs.

Marci Ingram, another autism advocate, still remembers the day a doctor said her son, Chris, would never live independently. Today, he lives and works on his own, thanks in part to programs that offered on-the-job training. “He was learning soft skills like how to interview, how to show up every day and how to ask questions,” says Ingram, who, along with her husband, former White Castle CEO Bill Ingram, financed a $10 million autism research fund at Ohio State and Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

At The Bigger Piece, participants ages 13 to 20 work in two-hour sessions, and though they’re unpaid now, Ohl plans to change that in 2022. They create resumes and interview for jobs in production, marketing and finance. Then they learn and build skills—through videos, demonstrations, instructions or whatever works for them. “We can alter the pace [as] needed so that it really does build their competence,” explains Ohl. Armed with knowledge of how they learn best, they can advocate for their needs with future employers.

Eighteen-year-old Charlie Lee mastered the process of transferring vinyl letters onto the craft-paper bags that hold puppy supplies. “Believe me, the ‘O,’ that’s the hardest. I have to squeegee it more,” he says. And that’s the point—the process reinforces the need for perseverance, which he applies to his part-time job at a local car dealership. Plus, there’s a bonus: Farmer encourages workers to play with new puppies to help socialize the dogs. The 23 participants also plan to donate this summer’s puppy-kit profits to an animal shelter, which will be selected in August.

Ohl grows more animated when she talks about the future of the program, which includes new products and staples for other kinds of animals. “I want participants to see the growth I see in them. They’re building a sense of competence, autonomy and purpose, and that’s big.”

This story is from the September 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.