Business & Finance

Autism Awareness Month Kicks Off at [words] Bookstore

Jonah Zimiles and Lisa Matalon of Words Bookstore Credits: David Lackey

MAPLEWOOD, NJ – Wednesday is World Autism Awareness Day, and [words] Bookstore will be hosting a Light it Up Blue ceremony for autism awareness at 5 p.m. at the store, located at 179 Maplewood Ave.  In addition, April is Autism Awareness Month, and [words] continues to do more to advance the cause, raise awareness and fight the autism unemployment crisis with its vocational training program.

In fact, Jonah Zimiles, owner of [words] Bookstore, and Lisa Matalon, Autism Vocational Training Coordinator at [words], recently traveled to North Carolina to speak at a conference entitled, “Employing Adults on the Autism Spectrum: A Conference on Pioneering Small Business Models,” which was convened by Extraordinary Ventures,  a North Carolina non-profit creating small businesses that employ adults with autism.

"We are very proud that we were selected to be New Jersey's representative – along with Arthur & Friends - among the nation's top autism workplace programs and to be featured presenters at this groundbreaking, first of its kind, national conference," said Zimiles.

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[words] was chosen along with 14 other businesses nationwide, identified through a 2012 study conducted by national organization Autism Speaks, as model programs, showing how “small businesses and entrepreneurs can meet the needs of their customers, clients, and communities while providing a range of jobs that match the unique strengths of people with autism.”

Zimiles said that representatives from the 15 businesses have travelled to other metro areas to lead town hall meetings with business owners.  He noted that he not only talked up his vocational program, but the town of Maplewood as well.

“One of my missions with the store is to help put Maplewood on the map,” Zimiles said.  “This gave me an opportunity to go around the country and talk about Maplewood, New Jersey and how our friendly, supportive community is an integral part of what we do - our ability to stay in business as a bookstore and our ability to successfully have people with autism work at our bookstore.”

Statistics from Autism Speaks show that 90 percent of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are either unemployed or underemployed and the rate of autism up more than 300 percent since 2002, so the information shared at the summit was especially timely.

At [words], they utilize a strategy called job-crafting.

“We create jobs to fit the people, rather than finding people to fit the jobs,” Zimiles said.  “We find people’s skills, and we slice and dice all traditional functions at the bookstore and take out the elements that can be done by people with autism and give them to those people.”

It struck upon him to begin doing that with all of the store’s employees.  Matching people to the tasks they are best at has led to an efficient workplace and happy workers.

A prime example of this is Matalon, who had shown how well she worked with the groups of young autistic trainees that came into the store.  So Zimiles asked her to become the coordinator of vocational training.

"It is a joy to work with each individual who participates in our vocational training program,” Matalon said.  “We were honored to share [words] Bookstore’s specific program vision with hundreds of people at and following the conference."

At the same time, Matalon said she was able to learn new tactics from other businesspeople at the conference.

“I learned so much,” Matalon said.  “I was exposed to so many new ways of showing the students how to perform the tasks.  It gave me good ideas we can use here.”

The store is a shining example of how local businesses can employ autistic people and be a part of the solution to a national problem.

[words] Bookstore: 179 Maplewood Avenue; (973) 763-9500;

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