Alex’s support staff agreed to give it a try. They spent the next month getting the vending machine working, then designed a program that would let Alex run the machine as independently as possible.
Nobody realized that Alex would discover a life-changing aptitude.
Six weeks later, this low-verbal, Autistic youth was doing every part of the job himself, building relationships with the office staff, teachers and students, and beaming with pride. When Alex was stocking the machine he was capable, engaged and completely independent. The machine brought out potential in Alex that many assumed he lacked. Soon people got to know the Alex who runs the vending machine, not Alex the Autistic kid in the special needs class.
This was the moment when one of Alex’s main advocate – his mother, Jill – had an epiphany. “Everything I believed about Autism shifted,” Jill says. “I stopped seeing Autism as a list of problems that needed fixing. Alex was smart, independent AND Autistic. I needed to learn how to include the Autism, not fight it.”
Alex’s support staff realized that work, not school, brought out Alex’s potential. They began a DIY vocational program for Alex. Over the next six years, he volunteered at the Lan Su Chinese Garden, the Portland Police Bureau and the Northwest Emergency Food Program.
In 2013, Jill noticed an empty vending machine at Stark’s Vacuum in the Montavilla neighborhood of Portland. She asked if Alex could provide a new machine, stocking and servicing it weekly. Being an open-minded, pro-diversity company, Stark’s Vacuum hosted the first PIE vending machine.
That’s when PIE became a for-profit, Autistic-run business. Today PIE has machines in seven local businesses and a pilot program in two schools to help teach the next generation of Autistic kids real life job skills.
Jill and Bruce are the devoted parents of Alex and his two sisters. They have always strived to fully integrate Alex into the family and to work together to support and develop the individual talents of each of their children. Originally from Green Bay, Jill graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison before moving out west. She believes schools judge kids based on their deficits. “But if you can design a business around what a kid does best, and get yourself out of the deficit model, it’s amazing what they can do.” She’s excited about what Alex’s business is doing for him, but also how it can benefit companies that want to partner with PIE. “They’re getting in on the ground floor of the first wave of Autistic-owned businesses.”
After 14 years of working with Alex, Jennifer says she can’t imagine who she’d be if she hadn’t. She’s seen the evolution of his skills and his independence and respects his desire to do things on his own. “If he’s having a great day and I’m too involved, it’s evident that I’m getting on his nerves. He’s able to be successful without my help.” Originally from New York City, Jennifer is also a painter and spends much of her time administrating a local arts organization.
“Alex is a lot of fun to work with and be around,” says Lane. “He is a fun-loving, laid back kind of guy.” After working for agencies that care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Lane appreciates Jill’s style. “Jill’s practices for Alex’s care are centered around Alex, not his Autism,” he says, noting that Jill puts Alex’s happiness and quality of life first. Lane is a senior in PSU’s School of Social Work. He likes horseback riding, geocaching, doing LGBT community education and advocating for survivors of domestic abuse.