By Sallie James
When Michelle Rubin’s son Scott was diagnosed with autism three decades ago, doctors told her the condition was extremely rare and to expect few options for him in school and work.
Rubin refused to embrace that grim outlook. Instead, the Boca Raton resident dedicated her energy to helping Scott and others like him live productive lives filled with independence.
Rubin founded the nonprofit Autism After 21 in 2011 out of frustration stemming from a lack of services for her own son, who is now 31. She has since provided life skills training to hundreds of young adults with spectrum disorders, giving them hope for brighter futures.
“I always tell families, it’s not as bad as you think,” said Rubin, who has two other sons. “At 21 years old I realized rather quickly that any kind of support or structured work opportunities for Scott were gone. There was just nothing available. My friends suggested I do something.”
So, she did. Now Rubin is in the business of changing lives.
Last month, the University of Florida honored Rubin with an Outstanding Alumni Award for Community Impact from the school’s College of Public Health and Health Professions.
She was selected from a field of more than 100 candidates.
Her friends weren’t surprised at all.
“Michelle is one of the most impressive people I know. She made sure that her son Scott … had every intervention possible. Now, he holds down two part-time jobs and is so proud of himself, as we all are,” said Debbie Abrams, a PR professional and a close friend who nominated Rubin. “She is an inspiration to me and to everyone that knows her.”
Autism After 21 promotes physical and mental well-being through therapy, mentorship, employment, education and social opportunities. The organization focuses on those transition years when young adults leave school and begin looking for jobs.
Rubin collaborates with the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to help clients needing transition services so they can join the workplace and learn independence.
The nonprofit also offers the Summer Opportunity for Adult Readiness (SOAR), a college campus-based residential and job skills program, as part of the groundwork for successful futures. The program, established in 2015, operates at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and at Florida International University in Miami, with plans to expand into Tampa.
“Students get an opportunity to live in the dorm and start to learn what it’s going to be like to be away from home as an adult and what it could be like to establish your career,” Rubin explained.
The independence can be life-changing, she said.
Rubin’s son Scott was also born with an intellectual disability so she knew his only chance at work would be some kind of hands-on training. Today, Scott works part time at All-Tag Manufacturing and Rocco’s Tacos in Boca Raton.
Part of what Autism After 21 does is educate employers about what it’s like to have someone on the spectrum in their workplace, Rubin said.
“This generation of employers are now much more open to giving it a try than they’ve ever been,” she said. “When I speak to a public group and ask people in the room if they know someone with autism, most people’s hands go up.”
Scott was diagnosed at age 2. At 18 months, he began developing repetitive behaviors like the hand flapping often associated with autism and he didn’t speak at all, his mother said. Rubin taught him sign language and he communicated that way until age 14, when he suddenly began to speak.
“He started saying ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ And then he asked for pizza,” she recalled.
“I was constantly pushing him out of his comfort zone. It was just intuitive to me that he could not have a life the way he was. Probably the other best thing I ever did for Scott was to have two more children,” Rubin said. Scott’s brothers accepted him and pushed him to be his best self, she said.
“For my husband and other two kids, the positive impact has far outweighed the negative,” Rubin added.
Today Scott rides his bicycle to the bus stop every day and takes public transportation to his job at All-Tag, where he helps sort anti-shoplifting security tags. He has worked there 11 years.
Joe Sirak, director of finance at All-Tag, said Scott was the first special needs person the company hired. It worked out spectacularly well.
“A light clicked on, and we realized this could be really useful,” Sirak said. “Now we have a 500-square-foot room where we have 10 people on any given day doing all the sorting. It turned into a very big project.”
Scott is probably the company’s most dedicated employee, Sirak said. “If he ever misses a day of work, he is usually upset about it. He is a great guy and works very hard.”
The skills taught at SOAR make such experiences possible, Rubin said. The hands-on, job-coaching program teaches participants self-determination skills that are life altering.
“They move in on a Monday and by Wednesday, they are different people, because they’re empowered,” Rubin said. “They realize they can do it. They can be on their own.”
NOMINATE SOMEONE TO BE A COASTAL STAR
Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 561-337-1553.