Five days a week, Nicole “Nikki” Tyson, 43, punches in to start her pre-opening shift at Rock Bottom Brewery in Chicago.

At 10 a.m., Tyson, an adult who is living with autism, is focused on making the restaurant customer-ready.

First, she starts the coffee brewing, then fills big restaurant tubs with ice.  Next, she replenishes the salt and pepper shakers and pitches in to remove the chairs from the tables.

“No one can do Nikki’s job better than Nikki does it, because setting up the servers’ wait stations plays right into her skills and strengths,” says David C. Thomas, the Vocational Director at PACTT (Parents Allied with Children and Teachers for Tomorrow) Learning Center.

Twelve-plus years ago it was his programming that prepared Tyson to earn a steady paycheck doing a job in the community.

For a person living with autism, working at Rock Bottom Brewery is a perfect fit.

“Nikki likes order, and at Rock Bottom Brewery she gets everything perfect, the way it is supposed to be, with deep concentration and purpose,” says Terry Herbstritt, the nonprofit’s director of development and communication.

Annually, he says PACTT Learning Center serves about 50 families through its various programming for children and adults living with autism. 

“At PACTT we saw Nikki’s condition of autism not as a problem, but a possibility for growth and for her to do the best that she could in her situation,” Thomas says. “Now, all she needs is a ride to work.  Her job coach basically just stands nearby to keep her safe, because Nicole can do her job.”

Living with autism

For Lois and Spencer Tyson of Oak Park, the road in raising a child with autism has been long, bumpy and full of surprises, especially when they began realizing that their daughter does understand a lot more than she can express.

“Nikki can communicate, but we can’t hold a conversation with her, so I suppose that Nikki would be on the lower functioning end of the autism scale, but in many ways, we are sometimes amazed at how clever and absolutely skilled Nikki is,” Lois said.  “We try to understand how frustrating, how frightening it must be when you have this in you, but for some reason you cannot communicate a feeling.” 

Seeking out special trainings, as well as seminars on how to raise an autistic child, learning to mindfully insert themselves into the center of national and local parent support groups, has enabled Lois and Spencer Tyson to grow in their parenting skills, and their youngest daughter to thrive.

“PACCT found this job for Nikki, and they are always looking for volunteer or job situations where they can integrate the strengths of our kids into the community,” says Lois.

Meanwhile, when Spencer takes walks with Nikki, he says the conversation is still mostly one way…until he makes a game of it, and they start counting geese at Columbus Park lagoon in Austin.

“If it is a large group, I can get her to say ‘lots of geese.’  If it is a small group, she will count them, saying 1, 2, 3, 4, 5” he says.  “As parents, we are always baffled by what goes on with Nikki.  But, we can come here for support, and some input.  In that way, PACTT has been a life saver for us.”

PACTT Learning Center

Complete address: 712 Belleforte Oak Park, IL  60302

General office number: 773-338-9102

Website: www.pactt.org

Leadership contact name & title: Terry Herbstritt – Development Director

Statement of purpose: Our mission is to assist individuals with severe autism in becoming as independent as possible with the ability to integrate effectively into their homes and community.

How long have you been in existence? 23 years

Ways volunteers can help: Helping out with special events or spring cleaning projects at PACTT group homes

To volunteer, call: Lee Raspante – 773-338-9102 ext. 2525 or eraspante@pactt.org

Useful donations other than money: new furniture, ipads, merchandise, tickets or vacation packages for auction at Work of Heart Dinner

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....