Connecting with An Underserved Community – How Car Washes and the Autistic Community Shine Together

The car wash industry is an amazingly diverse industry, offering opportunities for so many across the country. It’s an industry that provides chances to get a foothold on long-term careers and opportunities to workers that might otherwise be marginalized or have difficulty finding work.

Teens and adults with disabilities are always looking for ways to be part of the world around them. They want to contribute and demonstrate value in being part of the community. Could the car wash industry be the niche that is the right fit for autistic and other special needs individuals?

Building a Workforce

It’s said that “A rising tide lifts all boats” and Rising Tide Car Wash is certainly doing that.

The D’Eri family opened the first Rising Tide location in Parkland, Florida in 2012 to provide their son Andrew, who has autism, the opportunity to work in a career. Autistic and otherwise disabled persons are chronically underemployed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports unemployment rates for persons with a disability at 12.6% in 2020, over 5% higher than those without disabilities. Among those with disabilities, Drexel University reports that adults on the autistic spectrum have the lowest rate of employment compared to their peers with other disability types, with only 58% reporting as having worked after high school.

For the D’Eris, combatting this issue was something they could tackle head-on. They started by purchasing a car wash that was severely underperforming. They then put together a comprehensive program that harnesses unique traits of individuals with autism. Implementing structure, visual systems, checklists, and if/then scenarios, the D’Eris were able to develop a unique 46-step process that individuals with autism can navigate. The repetitive structure, and employees working in tandem with each other, is a system autistic individuals understand, and even thrive in.

Now, Rising Tide is recognized as one of the largest employers of autistic teenagers and adults in the country and continues to grow. They are scheduled to open a third location in Coral Springs, in late 2021 or early 2022. This is an ambitious project as well – in an interview with the local Sun Sentinel, founder John D’Eri stated that he hopes the new location will be 100% staffed by employees on the spectrum, making it the first of its kind.

Building a Business

While Rising Tide has been building their business over the course of nearly a decade, others are realizing the potential of the industry to provide opportunities for children and adults with disabilities.

Luci’s Carwash and Drive-Thru Convenience Store in Converse, Indiana was opened by Ryan and Beth Frank in late 2019. They wanted to provide their teenage daughter Luci – who has autism – and other children and adults with special needs the opportunity to work and connect with the community. Sarah Cox, the public relations manager for Luci’s, says the motivation behind looking into the car wash business partially was driven by Luci. “Luci herself has always had an interest in water, so that’s where the idea of the car wash came in… this would be a place where she would be motivated to spend time at.”

The Franks bought a rundown former car wash and renovated it to make it their own. Converting one of the larger bays to a convenience store, they sell snacks, gourmet sodas, fresh-baked goods, and even a small menu of food to go. They retained another bay for an in-bay automatic, while two other bays operate as self-serve bays.

Now, almost two years later, Luci’s is a shining beacon in the Converse community.

Sarah says that part of the goal of Luci’s is to provide vocational experience for the local special needs community. “One hundred percent. Obviously, it’s going to vary person to person as to what task they may be able to do, but the goal is to make it a safe place.” The Franks are hands-on owners, and through connecting with the local special needs program at Luci’s school, the management and supervision has developed strategies and processes to work with these unique individuals and their needs.

“Not only does Luci have a place there where she can engage with customers and be a part of it, but it’s also a place where other special needs individuals can find employment too,” says Sarah. By having a mixed staff of special needs individuals, high school students, and adult supervision, the special needs team members are engaged and active and receive direction.

At the same time, it is a great tool for driving engagement between the community of Converse and the special needs community. Even in the modern world, many are not aware of what special needs individuals can bring to the table, leading them to be underestimated and underemployed. “Having a car wash there is a way to share all that the special needs community can do,” Sarah points out. “It inspires a lot of other parents too… even though my child may not have the same path that I did, there’s still space for everyone.”

In the end, it’s great for everyone. Many workers with disabilities, including autism, simply want to contribute. Sarah agrees, having seen it over the years – “What can they do that they could enjoy, and make money… being at the Autism Center, I realized how many people are so excited about making money. To get paid and have that recognition and fulfillment.”

Luci’s continues to make that desire a reality for the disabled and autistic community. They hope their story encourages other car washes and industries to think outside the box and consider working with their local charities and agencies. The bottom line, as Sarah and the Luci’s team sees it, “Some of the hardest, best workers are sometimes those that do have some of those limitations, because they’re very committed, very meaningful. They’re very excited and thankful to be a part of something. There’s a lot of hard workers out there that can benefit your business.”

Bringing the Car Wash Home

For Clint Baker and his Reviews by Vince channel on YouTube, car washes aren’t necessarily for employment, but rather, enjoyment. His son, Vince, lives with autism, and has had a thing for car washes since he was young.  Baker started recording car wash trips to show to Vince, saving them on USB for viewing. However, as he saw his son continue to go to YouTube, he figured why not start up a channel there?

Five years and over 3 million views later, the channels hits thousands of views with every new video posted. Baker mentions that the majority of them come from those on the spectrum, and they reach out to him and talk about it. The channel has grown a serious following, and not just amongst the children and adults who find it soothing. Car wash owners themselves have reached out to Clint, reacting to his feedback!

For many people who have family members with autism, or who work with those on the spectrum, this is likely unsurprising. The effect of repetitive sounds – like the rhythmic sounds of whirling brushes in an IBA, or the spraying of water in a tunnel or touchless wash – and the visuals of water have been noted for years. A channel like Clint’s makes these visuals and audio easily accessible, from the safe and controlled environment of the home. Look out for Clint visiting your wash – or reach out to him directly, as some owners have already done across Canada and the upper United States!

Stepping Up as an Industry

Recognizing what the car wash industry can do for special needs children and adults, including those with autism, can help the industry be a community contributor. This can take you and your business from being just another car wash, to being an integral part of your community. Consider the following actions you can take:

  • Reach out to your state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation
  • Look over the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment for resources
  • Reach out to your local school district
  • Check out Autism Speaks Workplace Inclusion Now program. This program features resources, training, a job-sourcing platform and more to help job seekers with autism connect with employers and communities
  • Host an event at your car wash to fundraise for children with disabilities
  • Host a special needs class or adult special needs group at your car wash

Many car washes are starting to recognize the potential in hiring adults with disabilities, including autism. As an industry, we have a number of tasks and jobs that can be structured so that these individuals can contribute and be a part of the workforce. Consider reaching out to see how you can serve the disabled community and help individuals with disabilities get ahead. There’s a pretty good chance you will find yourself a committed, appreciative worker to help your business succeed!