A Colorado dad wanted more for his son. So he opened a trade school for young adults with autism.

Bobby Lee, 20, doesn’t want a job bagging groceries or folding napkins in the back of a restaurant. But in a traditional job-training program for people with disabilities, that’s likely what he would get. 

Instead, Lee is learning carpentry at a school in Englewood that helps teenagers and young adults with autism figure out what they’re good at — fixing cars, welding, electrical work, cyber security or using laser cutters and 3D printers. 

Lee hopes to get a job crafting furniture. Already, he’s helped build dozens of wooden desks that TACT — Teaching the Autism Community Trades — sold to a school. Lee, who said he has learned far more in the carpentry program than he ever learned in high school, in particular loves working with a tape measure. “You get the most information out of it,” he explained.

In a giant warehouse in an industrial district just off Santa Fe Drive, students are rewriting the conventional list of opportunities available to people with autism after they leave the public school system. More than 83% of students get jobs when they graduate from TACT, with an average salary of almost $20 per hour.

So far, 68 companies — including car dealerships, construction companies and household product producers — have hired graduates from the program. Graduates have gone to Jiffy Lube, Sturgeon Electric, Colorado Floor Company, Ball Aerospace, Groove Toyota and SNS IronWorks.

And as several autism providers have closed up operations in Colorado the past few years, the wait list at TACT is growing. It has climbed from about 20 people a few years ago to more than 100. 

On a recent day in the 18,000-square-foot warehouse, one student was learning to operate an auto lift holding up a Toyota RAV4. “Clear!” he shouted, before moving the lever. His first few attempts were rocky, with the SUV getting off balance as it began to descend lopsided.

The lift was donated by an auto company, as were some of the engines in the warehouse, including those from a Lexus and a Toyota. The school also has every component of a Tesla engine laid out on a cart so students can practice taking them apart and putting them back together. 

Michael Hurst helps attendees of TACT operate a lift with a Toyota RAV4 during an auto shop and mechanic class Sept. 12, 2023, at TACT, Teaching the Autism Community Trades, in Englewood. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

In another room, sparks are flying as Kate Sneddon, 20, uses a welding machine to smooth out a piece of metal pipe. Sneddon is considering a career in welding and has plans to help turn a hunk of metal into a giant ground sloth for the Morrison Natural History Museum, where she is a volunteer.

Sneddon is one of the few female students at the school, a reflection of the fact that four times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism. 

Whatever her future job, Sneddon said, she doesn’t want it to involve customer service. While welding, she puts in earplugs and covers her eyes with goggles, concentrating in solitude. Lee loves carpentry for similar reasons, and said he will not take a job working outside — only inside, because he has “terrible vision.”

The students at TACT work on their own timelines. Some are there for a few months; others have been there a couple of years. Each begins their enrollment by trying out whatever skills in the warehouse interest them, before setting on a program. 

Attendees at TACT, Teaching the Autism Community Trades, complete computer surveys in Englewood. TACT is a nonprofit organization founded to train the full spectrum of people with autism in trades and employment skills. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

When Danny Combs founded the school in 2016, it was the first trade school in the nation specifically for young people with autism. Combs was inspired by his son, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and, now as a 14-year-old, loves working on cars. Combs and his son are currently restoring a 1977 Mercedes that he bought for $800. 

“The way his brain works is pretty amazing,” Combs said. “There are so many stereotypes about autism. They have so much talent.” 

Combs left a career as a Grammy-winning songwriter to start the trade school after realizing that the jobs programs available to his son and other kids with autism were not based on helping them discover or use their talents. Typical programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities partner with grocery stores and restaurants, sending young people to wash dishes or sort laundry.

The state Medicaid program offers “supported employment,” in which clients work alongside a job coach. But for those with the ability — and autism comes with a wide range — there were few options, not just for jobs but for schools that prepare them to function in a job setting.

Many teens and young adults with autism are attending special schools where the state and federal safety rules are so strict that they are not allowed access to dish soap. 

“The hardest thing for us is that what we’re doing is so unique it doesn’t fit into the traditional box,” Combs said. “The agencies that would regulate organizations like ours would come in and look and see, ‘Oh my God, there’s a table saw! There’s an auto lift!’ We’re trying to help them experience what a job is really going to be like so they’re more successful.”

TACT operates mainly on philanthropy and partnerships with industries that want to hire its graduates. It also gets support through Medicaid, the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and Colorado’s Community Centered Boards, which provide funding and programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

The school attempts to put together a scholarship package for each student, based on donations and the services for which they qualify. Students typically can qualify for funding from Community Centered Boards if they have an IQ of 70 or below. They also take the Vineland test, which measures their ability to learn practical and conceptual skills. 

Some students have an IQ below 70, but excel at following step-by-step tasks without distraction or frustration. Others are the opposite. 

The son of the school’s chief executive, for example, “has a 160 IQ, can do orbital mechanics and math,” Combs said. “His mind is brilliant, but he will not put a shirt on the right way in the morning.”

Tuition is about $6,000 per trimester. About 80 students are enrolled in trade skills courses, with six students per class. High school juniors through adults up to age 30 are eligible. 

The school moved in January from a 5,000-square-foot building near Empower Field to its cavernous space in Englewood, which was acquired through the Urban Land Conservancy. Private donors, businesses and families funded the $1.5 million renovation to turn the warehouse from a syringe tube factory into a trade school. 

Electrical projects at TACT, Teaching the Autism Community Trades, in Englewood. The organization hosts programs in mechanics, electrical vehicles, carpentry, welding, 3D print and design, cybersecurity and more. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Now it’s a cheery, and loud, place where a black mutt named Butch trots around each day. He visits students learning how to take notes when a customer calls an auto mechanic shop — “Do you write down the exact words the customer is saying? Yes, you do. Is it a rattle? Is it a grinding?” — and then heads back to the welding shop to check on his owner, who is instructor Jon Graham. 

Graham, an ironworker, loves that every student can learn how to weld, if given the time and patience. The trade requires an attention to detail that fits with many of his students’ skill sets. “Anybody can be really good at it if they practice,” he said. “It just takes maybe a little more time for some to get the hang of it.”