July 26, 2011
By Shary Denes
David Rubin loves his job. He is on the front lines of drumming up business for a screen-printing company in Staten Island, N.Y. His research skills and computer knowledge help his boss ferret out potential customers and donors for the nonprofit company, Possibili-Tees. He is a valued employee and gets high praise from his supervisor, Tom Siniscalchi, who rates Rubin as “excellent at his job.”
But getting to this point in his career has been a long road traveled for Rubin, 54, who has Asperger’s syndrome. “It’s incredibly hard being autistic,” he said.
Rubin describes himself as being of “normal intellect,” and in fact he earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the College of Staten Island, but neither gave him an edge during his many futile attempts to find and hold a job. After graduating in 1986, he quickly found himself in an exasperating impasse.
“Either I was over-qualified as a college graduate or under-qualified because I’m autistic,” he said. “I graduated college and spent the next 10 years being miserable.”
Rubin said his first intent after graduation was to become a teacher, but that did not work out. “I could not handle a classroom of kids, no how,” he said. “I was bounced out as being mentally incompetent. After that, I kept trying [to find work] one way or another.”
Among his numerous jobs was that of a telemarketer. “I called people up to ask how they liked this show or that product,” he recalled. But conversing with people and meeting quotas proved to be too stressful, and he was let go. He also worked as a messenger for about a year: “I worked with an ex-con who was developmentally disabled and an immigrant who could barely speak English. I was bored and rather humiliated there.”
Tedious, monotonous jobs frustrated him, but his autism and physical disability kept him from jobs that better suited his intellectual capabilities. “It’s kind of a hidden disability. If you have a broken arm, people can see it. With us, it’s very subtle,” he said of people with high-functioning autism.
The stress of a decade-long, disheartening job search landed Rubin in the South Beach Psychiatric Center in Staten Island with a nervous breakdown. That distressing event, however, became the turning point in his quest for employment.
Rubin got a part-time job at the center’s second-hand store tallying the day’s sales. Although the job was unchallenging and dull, it led him to Tom Siniscalchi and a new enterprise called Special-Tees.
Siniscalchi launched the screen-printing company in 1995 as part of a New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene grant awarded to the psychiatric center to employ people with mental health disabilities. Rubin showed up for an interview, bearing butterscotch candy for good measure, and was one of the original five employees hired. He and his co-workers were instrumental in helping Siniscalchi build the fledgling company into what would become a $1.1 million business.
No one, including Siniscalchi, knew anything about screen printing. “We started printing our first shirts, half of which were ruined,” Rubin recalled. “A local organization for the homeless loved us. They were constantly getting our ruined shirts,” he said.
Rubin made decent money, but was unhappy with his assigned task. “I was cleaning tools-- the squeegees we used to apply ink to shirts. It bored me to tears. It was insulting. I constantly complained, ‘Why is a college graduate doing this?’”
Nevertheless, Rubin stayed with Special-Tees for 14 years, primarily because he knew all too well from past experience that he had few options in the workplace. But that changed when Siniscalchi left Special-Tees to start a similar screen-printing business, Possibili-Tees, as part of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin’s work-training program, and asked Rubin to join the new company.
Before making the move, however, Rubin made one thing clear to Siniscalchi: “I told him no more squeegee cleaning.” Instead, he said he wanted to work with a computer. “I told him that I can use the computer and I’ve been using the computer for fun for 20 years or so,” Rubin remembered. Siniscalchi agreed and Rubin joined Possibili-Tees in 2009.
“It’s a great job,” Rubin said. “For the first time in my life, I have a job that honestly suits me.” Other than a desire for more hours and a bump in his minimum-wage pay, Rubin said he is finally content with his work life.
“I was miserable for 12 to 15 years, but finally I’m with Tom,” he said. “I’m doing what I’m doing and, thank God, I’m happy."
Shary Denes is a freelance writer and editor in Sugar Loaf, N.Y.
Topics:Living with Autism
Please login or register before you comment. Click here to login or register.