Signal Staff Writer
When 26-year-old James Romero, diagnosed with autism, graduated high school and discussed the possibility of a career with his parents, they weren’t sure what options he could afford. His high school program coordinator told him about the local nonprofit Yes I Can. Romero is now starting his first job in catering with Disney College, after graduating from a year-long program.
Yes I Can is a nonprofit in Santa Clarita that offers career preparation training services to high school graduates on the spectrum, in the entertainment industry through partnerships with educational and for-profit organizations. They offer free-of-cost training working with the regional center by training autistic high school graduates through the process of looking, training and finding jobs in the industry. The program incorporates skills and training in organizing and managing entertainment events and concerts, among others.
According to a study by A.J. Drexel Autism institute, one-third of autistic young adults never get a job or finish high school. The study also found that 26% of these individuals never receive any services in terms of gaining financial independence or continuing education.
Los Angeles, the global hub of music and art, is home to one of the largest entertainment job markets. However, for individuals with autism, there are fewer employment opportunities. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of individuals with autism is likely to increase within the next decade or so. With most jobs automated, the possibility of gaining access to on-site jobs for such individuals is both challenging and rigorous.
Yes I Can was co-founded in 2009 by Bret Lieberman, an educator by profession, and Kirsten Fitzpatrick, a disability advocate, with the goal of enabling autistic individuals to gain access to the entertainment industry job market. The nonprofit has had successful job placement in various fields – video game design, animation, voiceover work, music production, music engineering, lighting, staging, concert production, special effects, pre- and post-production, and catering – within the entertainment industry umbrella.
“We try to find somebody who’s passionate about something, and we try to turn that passion into a paycheck,” said Lieberman, the organization’s executive director. He believes that autistic individuals have talents that come with the disability, “and we’d rather focus on the ability rather than the disability.”
Romero came into the program with the goal of learning the dos and don’ts of the workplace. Working for Disney has always been his dream. “I learned about adaptability and empathy and social diversity, awareness and entrepreneurial mindset,” he said.
Yes I Can works with Inglewood-based music school 1500 Sound Academy, which offers courses in music production, mixing, songwriting, business management and artist branding. Three YIC students graduated from the academy this year.
Logan Sheppard, an aspiring musician and audio engineer who attended the school alongside YIC classmates Jordan Katz and Brandon Kelman, said, “Yes I Can’s internship has been a phenomenal experience. I feel like I have changed not only as a person, but as a human being, with all the guest speakers and their inspiring stories. It makes me feel like I have a chance, too.”
Students come to YIC with different aspirations, but with the goal of getting a job. Lieberman says they look for individuals who are tired of limited job options and who feel they’re stereotyped because of their condition. He says personal growth is an important part of the program.
“We see their confidence rise. We demystify the stereotypes that come with having a disability and allow them to really see that anything is truly possible as long as they’re willing to work hard.”
Lieberman said it’s also about changing the narrative. “Hollywood has had one type of person telling the story. Now, it’s their opportunity to share the struggles that they’ve gone through and be on the same level playing field.”
To apply for the YIC program, individuals must be determined eligible by the L.A. County Regional Center, which, then, connects them with the organization to explore opportunities and training suited to their aptitude.