Eileen Arenberg lives by herself in a Chatsworth apartment she rented recently. Every weekday she takes the bus to Dak Industries in Canoga Park, where she works as a data-entry operator for the electronics firm.
In nine months of work she has never been late or absent.
The 29-year-old woman sits erect at her video display terminal and works machine-like, entering 30% more items each day than most of her co-workers. Her single goal is to win the employee of the month award.
But even without the honor, Arenberg knows she has accomplished more than most people ever thought she would.
Arenberg is autistic.
In June, she became the first autistic adult from Jay Nolan Community Services for the Developmentally Handicapped to move to her own apartment.
"She is our pride and joy," said Richard Rosenberg, executive director of the Canyon Country center named for the autistic son of the late actor Lloyd Nolan.
"She has become independent enough to be fully integrated into her community," he said. "This is what it's all about."
As recently as five years ago, autistic adults such as Arenberg lived in institutions or group homes--much like the character Raymond played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie "Rain Man." In best-case scenarios, they might spend their lives doing piecework in the comfortable setting of an agency or center for other autistic people. Until the mid-1980s, no one thought they could work and live independently.
Today, Jay Nolan and other organizations partially funded by the state work to integrate people like Arenberg into society.
"In this state, disabled people have the right to live and work and participate in their community," Rosenberg said, referring to the Lanterman Act, which became state law in 1968. "When we make it a priority for these people, amazing things happen."
There is perhaps no greater example than Arenberg's.
Her independence did not come quickly or easily. It has taken Arenberg 10 years to learn how to cope fully with the world around her.
Arenberg was nearly 4 when her parents, Stan and Toby Arenberg of West Los Angeles, took her to UCLA Medical Center to learn why the girl still couldn't speak like her peers.
"At that time, autism was a very new term," Toby Arenberg said of her daughter's diagnosis. "We didn't know where to begin to find help for her."
Once the parents understood the definitions associated with autism, they knew their daughter was an autistic savant--limited in her ability to communicate and process language, but highly gifted in various memorization, musical and mathematical skills.
Arenberg's special musical ability was evident even before she was diagnosed as autistic. At age 4, she would climb up next to her mother at the family piano and turn the pages as her mother played.
"She knew exactly when I was finished with a page," Toby Arenberg said. "That meant she could read the music the same way I could."
Once, when the family was at a music festival, Eileen, then 9, placed her hands over her ears throughout several songs. When her parents asked her what was wrong, she said she couldn't stand listening to the music unless it was played in the key of C.
"And so we discovered she had perfect pitch as well," Toby Arenberg said of her daughter.
Although Eileen Arenberg continued to fascinate her family by memorizing calendars and teaching herself to play the piano, she spent the next 15 years in private schools for the developmentally disabled. During that time, the Arenbergs joined the Autism Society of Los Angeles, where they eventually heard about the Jay Nolan center.
"Her mental tricks were fine, but they weren't going to help her get a job or live by herself," Toby Arenberg said. "We wanted her to stop trying to memorize the world and start trying to live in it."
The process of integrating Eileen Arenberg into society started when she was 19 and moved into a Jay Nolan group home for autistic adults in Canoga Park.
Last fall, Susan Shoemaker, a Jay Nolan job placement coordinator, and other staff members decided Arenberg was finally ready for her first major test--a job in the private sector. Shoemaker contacted management officials at Dak Industries and told them about Arenberg. In October she was hired.
Arenberg had worked for a few years as a secretary at Jay Nolan and had done very well, Shoemaker said. In the past year, Shoemaker and others at the center have helped to place 180 adults in jobs supervised by center-provided job coaches.
"It was time for this step," Shoemaker said.
Gloria Morua, manager of the data-entry operators at Dak, said that although the company had hired other disabled people, Arenberg was the company's first autistic employee. In an effort to make the transition smoother, Arenberg at first was constantly accompanied by a job coach, Darryl McDonald, provided by the center. Typically, job coaches stay with the autistic employee until the routine becomes more familiar.