How one Valley resident is living with autism instead of ‘dealing’ with it

(Beneficial Beans Cafe at Burton Barr Library in Phoenix by Marissa Sanchez)

By Marissa Sanchez

When people come across a problem, often the immediate response is to find a solution. But in everyday life, some issues do not have a one-size-fits-all solution. Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center,  a nonprofit organization in Phoenix, works with clients to achieve the best solution for each individual who are learning to live with autism rather than “dealing” with it.

Melanie Wheelen, a graduate of Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree BA in English and a certificate in creative writing, participated in many SARRC programs, including the Beneficial Beans cafe program.

Wheelen wrote in an email, “When I first entered SARRC in 2013, it was for summer programs, one which included community service work as practice for a paying job. I found myself taking initiative and even taking lead in the projects. By January of 2014, I took a women’s empowerment class, which discussed living alone, finances, relationships and careers. Since I was the only one attending college, my group leaders encouraged me to speak up more about my personal experiences. The best opportunity, though, was being an intern with Beneficial Beans for seven weeks. It added to my resume, which only had volunteer work.”

Beneficial Beans coffee shops function like a business and provide internships to SARRC clients where they are able to learn work skills that can later be transferred into other community-based employment.

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(Beneficial Beans Cafe at Burton Barr Library in Phoenix by Marissa Sanchez)

According to Karen Scott, marketing and communications manager at SARRC, about 75 percent of adults served by SARRC, through Beneficial Beans and other programs, secure and maintain community employment.

Wheelen said, “I considered my internship with SARRC’s Beneficial Beans Café to be where I started in the job field. I used to tell my parents I never wanted to work around food, but there I was making lattes, smoothies and teas. I took orders and handled the cash register along with clean up. I loved it, particularly because I had such wonderful mentors who’ve become brothers to me.

“Experience in customer service did give me a boost in my confidence and using my voice. For a long time, especially in high school I had a difficult time speaking for myself (particularly with being bullied.) However, I can speak upfront with handling people, whether it’s on the phone or in person. Even better, I can speak for what I need.”

Community support was essential for Melanie, including the leaders and counselors at SARRC, her mentors who saw her potential and her family. “My parents have been my biggest support since they’ve always seen the best in me when I couldn’t see it myself,” Wheelen said.

Currently Wheelen works as a customer service representative with a company called Peckham Inc., which is a national passport information center hotline. When asked what is was like to work in the competitive job field, she said, “It is not easy, but it’s a learning process. I find myself having to speak for myself more often than I did before in my life and have more responsibility. It’s helped me grow as a person, but there’s one downside. It does feel frustrating because even if I make it clear that I’m an Aspie (and individual with Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum), it doesn’t seem to sink in because when some people in the job field think disability, they won’t always consider neurological. Asperger’s syndrome is a disorder of the brain; not mental or physical. I can only handle communication or socializing for so long before I need to be alone and regroup. Sadly, most people don’t seem to understand that.”

Wheelen’s goal is to use her creative writing to raise autism awareness. Wheelen said, “Even more, I realized there were no characters on TV or in movies that were on the spectrum. There were characters with dyslexia, blind, deaf, missing limbs or in wheelchairs, which are important to talk about, but nothing to even hint of Asperger’s. Perhaps it’s too complex, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided. Upon that realization, I felt more isolated; would anyone be able to understand my differences? After almost of decade of wanting to be an author, I knew what kind of writing to pursue: fiction with characters that have Asperger’s. Every life is different, but I can tell of my experiences so others can feel less alone.”

Wheelan has been published in ASU’s West Campus magazine, Canyon Voices, with “Stop the Noise,” which touches on her own experience with having Asperger’s syndrome. She hopes to find a way to market or publish her writing, but, for now, she  she will continue to  search for the right opportunity and keep on writing.