Photograph by Lauren Gores

Dustin Hale, a 21-year-old Bloomington man with autism, has taken classes at Ivy Tech and worked in the community. He is an Indianapolis Colts fan.

Dustin Hale sits down at the Monroe County Public Library and clasps his trembling hands. He keeps his head down for a minute, only making eye contact with the Peyton Manning face on his t-shirt. He rubs his fingers above his lip and tugs on the few short hairs he missed while shaving.

"I'm a little nervous," he admits.

Hale is not nervous because he is in an unfamiliar place. The 21-year old has autism and is nervous because he likes his routine and gets flustered when it changes. A typical day does not include a sit-down interview.

Hale spends his time job searching, hiking, reading or watching the Indianapolis Colts on TV. A diligent worker, he is focused on finding an employer who will hire an applicant with special needs. It is a task that proves difficult for any adult with autism. Hale pushes onward, however, and tries his best.

***

According to the Autism Society of America Web site, autism is a developmental disability that affects communication and interaction skills. Its level of severity varies among individuals, and there is no identified cause of the disorder. Autism tends to initially appear in children between the ages of 1 and 3. Hale was diagnosed at age 3.

Hale does not waste time worrying about the constraints that autism has on his life. Rather, he stays focused on finding a job and enjoying his free time. To help him do so, he works with Options for Better Living, a Bloomington nonprofit organization that partners with people with disabilities to provide assistance and employment support.

"Options is a great program for Dustin," says his father Rodney Hale. "They hang out with him and help him in finding a job."

When asked if he likes participating with the program, Dustin Hale coyly nods his head and says, "Yeah."


Photograph by Lauren Gores

Jolene Headly from the nonprofit Options for Better Living helps special-needs adults in the Bloomington community find work.

Through his involvement in Options, Hale gets help filling out job applications and preparing for interviews.

"I had a job interview at Kohl's," he says. "But I didn't get it." Hale smiles, squeezes his palms together and says, "I was just disappointed."

Disappointed, yes -- but he is not frustrated. His shy but confident demeanor says he is sure that he will find another job.

Hale's father encourages him to not dwell on the negative response from Kohl's.

"You just go on, right?" says Rodney Hale. "Go on to the next one."

Dustin Hale would like the "next one" to be a job at Kmart stocking shelves. Second on the self-proclaimed "movie buff's" list is Blockbuster, an employer that hires disabled adults.

Hale earned his first work experience more than a year ago, cleaning the shelves and floors of a small t-shirt shop in Bloomington. When he speaks about his position, he smiles broadly and becomes more engaged in the conversation.

"I liked just going in, saying, 'Hi,' to my coworkers and doing my job," he says.

***

After eight months of work, Hale's employer went out of business because of the struggling economy. He had to break his work routine, which his father says was not easy.

"He does very well when there's a routine," says Rodney Hale. "When you break it up, then he starts getting a little nervous."

"I liked just going in, saying, 'Hi,' to my coworkers and doing my job."
- Dustin Hale

But Dustin Hale has more to put on his resume than his past work experience. He enrolled in a course at Ivy Tech Community College in 2006, one year after high school graduation. An avid reader, he completed a reading comprehension class. Prior to being accepted into Ivy Tech, he took a placement exam.

"To my amazement, he passed," says Rodney Hale, with pride. "He can do it. He's already proved that."

Although Dustin Hale says he does not want to enroll in another English course, he enjoys reading the Harry Potter book series. He read each of the seven books published.

"We actually stood in line to get one at midnight at Wal-Mart," says Rodney Hale.

"I have all of them," adds Dustin.

***

Hale first began reading the Harry Potter books in high school, while attending Bloomington North High School. During that time, he also began interacting with longtime Options staff partner Peter Conway.

"Dustin is a blast," says Conway. "... I try to encourage him to explore new things."

He also enjoys surfing the Web and downloading songs by his favorite country music star, Taylor Swift.

"She has good music, and she's good-looking, too," he says, beaming.

Beyond his admiration for music, Hale has developed a passion for other things in life -- a trait that his father attributes to Conway's dedication and consistency with his son.

"I thank God for Pete," says Rodney Hale. "He's really good at what he does. He's really brought Dustin out ... I call it his shell. He's not hiding anymore. He's out."

With assistance from Options' Jolene Headley, Dustin Hale got a job at Goodwill, where he sorts donations and helps organize items on the shelves.

He received his first paycheck on Dec. 11 and used the money to help pay rent and buy Christmas presents for his sister and parents.

Lauren Gores can be reached at lgores@indiana.edu.