It's Tuesday afternoon at the Plymouth Road Rite-Aid, and Steve Tsai is busy pricing bottles of club soda.
The work is monotonous, routine. Just what he likes.
A shopper spots his blue vest and name tag and asks: "Do you sell catsup?"
Steve keeps walking, as if he hasn't heard the question.
It's not that he's rude or deaf. Steve has autism, a brain disorder that affects communication, social interaction and imagination.
That's why his mother Merling is right behind him.
"What do you need, sir?" she quietly asks the customer, before escorting him to the condiments shelf.
When Steve was in school, Merling had her own job. Now, at the age of 60, her job is helping make sure Steve, 32, does his. In the morning, she accompanies him to his part-time job at the Ann Arbor District Library, where he carefully and quickly reshelves books. In the afternoons, she's with him at the Plymouth Mall drug store, where manager Paul Anderson says he's one of the best, hardest-working employees there.
"A problem with autistic people is they look normal, so people expect them to behave in a normal way," said Merling Tsai. "But they don't. ... As a parent, you worry about them every day."
P.V. Roby of Ann Arbor, who has a 20-year-old developmentally disabled daughter, knows that worry well. Of particular concern to parents of those with autism and other developmental disabilities is how their adult children will function in society and what will happen to them when their parents can no longer look out for them.
"We're all terrified," said Roby. "It takes a huge amount of work to make sure all the services are there, but after we die, then what happens?"
Hoping to address that issue, a group of Washtenaw County parents of disabled children and adults has been meeting monthly for the past year. Members of Intentional Communities of Washtenaw hope to cut through the long waiting lists and high cost of community-based housing with new housing options for the disabled. They are also trying to meet their children's need for social connection and structure.
Jill and Al Blixt of Ann Arbor are hoping Intentional Communities of Washtenaw will serve the needs of their son, Andrew, 23.
"We're very lucky in the state of Michigan that there are services, and education and training for young adults until 26," said Jill Blixt. (Michigan is the only state that provides services until that age; most stop at 21.) "But what happens is that once they step out of program and are in their lives without the structure of daily social activities and training, they end up profoundly isolated. We're trying to create a nonprofit that would survive us, that would be run by other parents who understand, so we could leave this earth in peace knowing that the program's going to be there ... ."
What happens when schooling ends?
The Washtenaw Intermediate School District provides vocational and life skills training for moderately to severely impaired young adults 18 to 26. Some students go out as a group to job sites, and some begin jobs they'll keep for years after they graduate.
John Williams, who has taught all ages of special education for 30 years, particularly enjoys his group of 15 young adults, who seem equally happy to spend the day with him.
Williams frequently reminds his students' parents that they must prepare for the inevitable, always tearful, graduation day.
"Every September or October (after graduation), I'll get a call from a parent who says, 'John, I don't know what to do with him,"' he said. "I'm kind of like, 'That's what I've been telling you the last six years: We gotta get prepared for this.' They need any reason to get up in the morning."
Steve Tsai's father is Luke Y. Tsai, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. He is a leading autism specialist in the area, and one of just a few psychiatrists in the state who specialize in autism. Although he did not choose his specialty because of his son, he believes his career path was the right one.
Tsai said that because the autistic are slow learners and have trouble interacting with people, they have a hard time securing employment. If they're put in the right job with good training, possibly in a field such as computer programming, they can do well.
Michigan Ability Partners, an agency that offers many services including job development and job coaching for people with disabilities, has placed clients in libraries, book stores, movie theaters and restaurants. Pam Byrnes, MAP's vocational services director, said clients are usually good, dependable workers who stay for years.
The job becomes important to the client because it's part of his or her identity.
"Usually, it's not that they need the money," said Byrnes. "They'll have other benefits."
Rite Aid Manager Paul Anderson had been at the store just four months when Steve Tsai was hired there 15 years ago.
"He's become a tremendous employee," said Anderson. "I've found that just because someone is handicapped doesn't mean that they can't do a job. Everyone, no matter who you are, is good at something."