In the past decade, Tom Whalen, a 27-year-old Baltimore County man, has had jobs at an animal shelter, a mailroom, multiple grocery stores, a doggy day-care center and a landscaping company.
He is chatty, outgoing and engaging, quick to win over strangers and ask for opportunities. Then, in short order, he loses them.
“He could get jobs,” says his mother, Sue.
“The problem is maintaining them,” adds his father, Ed.
Tom was born with a heart defect, took forever to potty train and played mostly by himself during preschool. He was in kindergarten when an observant teacher offered the Whalens a hypothesis that might explain their son’s behavior: autism.
The next 12 years of school were marked by special-education plans, adapted-learning strategies, personalized assistance and lunches spent at what Tom remembers as “the reject table.” But it was also a haven of structure, safety and socialization. He had a place to go, people to look out for him, opportunities every day to learn and find his strengths. (Tom could solve complicated math problems in his head — he just couldn’t explain to teachers how he’d done it.)
High school graduation was a victory and a plunge into the abyss. What now? “I was scared to death,” Sue says.
What Tom did first was attend community college, which didn’t work out very well. Without the rigid schedule and personalized support that aided him through high school, he drifted, often skipping class to sit in the campus library.
So he dropped out and started spending his days mostly alone at the family’s home in Northeast Baltimore. “At that point, I realized I have a bit of a wild streak,” Tom says with a smile. He wears Star Wars slippers and shifts his baseball cap up and down on his head as he sits on his parents’ couch.
Sue and Ed remember this period less fondly. Tom, who had been placed on a two-year wait list for help from Maryland’s Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA), would load up his backpack, step outside and start walking toward the city skyline.
He would wander through Baltimore for miles, sometimes end up lost and then refuse to answer his cellphone because he didn’t want to get in trouble. Once, he got mugged. Sue felt herself edging toward a nervous breakdown.