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“We as a society view autism as a disability that deserves sympathy,” said Tom D’Eri, the co-founder of Rising Tide Car Wash, in Parkland, Florida, but at this unique business, where 80 percent of the workers are autistic people, it’s viewed completely differently. For jobs with repetitive tasks autism can be an asset, and D’Eri said that his workers are “the most engaged people you can get.”
Tom D’Eri knows firsthand about the difficulties, and strengths of autistic people. His younger brother Andrew, 23, is autistic, and the D’Eri family was discouraged about the scarcity of jobs available to him as he approached adulthood, even while he was making significant strides at school. “Most of the communications [people receive] are about childhood autism,” D’Eri said, and many people aren’t aware of the significant improvements" those like Andrew make as they approach adulthood, which allow them to be productive employees, he continued.
With an estimated unemployment rate of 90 percent for autistic adults, according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy group for the awareness and treatment of the disorder, the family had good reasons to be worried about Andrew’s ability to find employment. Then, in 2012, while going through a carwash of all places, John D’Eri, the father of Tom and Andrew, had a thought: Andrew could do this.
The family talked it over and decided that a carwash was the perfect business to prove that autistic people can be great employees. A carwash is a staple of the community, D’Eri said, and Rising Tide was a way of showing people directly: “Look what these [people] with autism can do.” He changed his post-college plans from a job on Wall Street, to the bigger challenge of helping to a start carwash where autistic people could earn a living while providing an excellent wash experience.
The D’Eri family reached out to Paul Fazio, president of Sonny’s Enterprise Inc., for guidance on not only how to get into the carwash business, but also how to deal with the unique challenges of running a carwash where the majority of the employees are autistic. “We went to [Sonny’s] and said this is what we’re trying to do, can you help us?” Fazio’s answer was a resounding yes, according to D’Eri, who said that Sonny’s partnership has been instrumental in Rising Tide’s success.
While the co-founders of Rising Tide viewed autism as a strength for accomplishing many of the repetitive but challenging jobs at a carwash, they also knew that they needed an organized system to train their employees on the skills necessary to clean cars. Sonny’s has long been known for its Car Wash College, which gives operators and employees hands-on training about the industry; Tom and John took the courses, along with a disability consultant, to learn how to apply the system for autistic workers. What they came up with was a 46 distinct step process breaking down carwashing in a way their workers would be able to easily understand. There were some minor changes to the original system, said D’Eri, to make the process more visual and concrete, but the core ideas of how to train employees remained intact.
As Rising Tide began piloting the carwash, D’Eri said their hopes that autistic people would embrace the system came true. The organized system of training integrated well with people with autism’s desire for structure. For employee relations issues that go beyond their knowledge, Rising Tide’s support system also extends to the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at both the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University, which D’Eri said “helped us connect with the local autism community and continues to help us support our employees to become more independent individuals.”
Rising Tide has only been in business for a year, but it’s already establishing itself as both a great carwash, and proof that those with autism can not only hold a job, but thrive at it. Operating as a successful for profit business, D’Eri said, is a strong statement about the autistic people's value to the workforce.
The wash has been able to triple the business done by the previous owner, and D’Eri expects it to clean 100,000 cars in 2014. The old wash was converted by Rising Tide from a full-serve to a flex-serve with pay stations, and the D’Eri said they continue to invest in technology, and look to improve their wash process. Rising Tide's “Unlimited Wash Program” has taken off as well, and provides a steady flow of revenue during rainy Florida days, he said.
Not only has Rising Tide not had to layoff any of its 30-plus autistic workers, although D’Eri said some have decided the job isn’t for them, it’s promoted many. “One of our assistant managers, one of our supervisors and just about all of our detailers,” are autistic. The employees who move up, he said, are those who maintain a desire for structure, but also possess the social and customer service skills to lead the other members of the staff as well.
While autistic people haven’t been ideal for service advisor jobs, D’Eri said that for greeting customers, and structured interactions, his employees are engaging, and show a level or genuine interest in talking to customers that is not synonymous with customer service in general.
Rising Tide uses an assessment process to make sure a potential employee will be a good fit. “We really rely on our employees with autism to pull their weight,” and the wash makes its hiring decisions based on if they will be able to do the job well. Not only do most employees end up being a good fit for the job, they end up loving it. Rising Tide is a community group for them, and D’Eri said that on their days off, half of the employees “come over and say hello.”
Asked what has been the most challenging thing about starting a carwash, D’Eri said it certainly hasn’t been employee management. “The guys with autism have been the easy part,” he said. "Getting to know the complexities of the wash business though, that has been a challenge. ... from signage to zoning to mechanicals, to computer systems, to employee management, there’s a full gamut of things you need to learn.”
A carwash is at its best, said D’Eri, when it is “really structured, really process driven, and that is how you alleviate safety issues, make sure equipment is maintained,” and keep your customers happy. People with autism are great at this type of work, he continued. Rising Tide is looking to expand with two more locations, and as they do, the D'Eri family hopes to continue proving something they believed all along: That autistic people can be part of a business’s success, they just need a chance.
Carwash: Rising Tide Car Wash
Co-founder: Thomas D'Eri
Number of Locations: 1
Number of Employees: 40
Year Opened: 2013