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TMI Client on the Autism Spectrum Lands Dream Job at Barnes & Noble

Updated: May 14, 2019

As a child, Robert, who is on the autism spectrum, and his mom, Jane, loved to read together. It is no wonder that Robert was drawn to books throughout his life and would go on to work at one of the greatest bookstores, Barnes & Noble. Growing up Robert’s autism was overlooked and diagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It wasn’t until he was 17 that he was diagnosed correctly.

(Robert, his TMI Facilitator Laura Scott, Barnes & Noble Store Manager Brad Bryant, TMI Division Manager Cathena Ferrero, TMI Executive Director Rachel Harris and Barnes & Noble Assistant Store Manager Mary Anna Petyak)

As a client with Toward Maximum Independence (TMI), Robert learned of another client working in the TMI Paid Internship Program at Barnes & Noble in Point Loma and expressed a keen interest in doing the same job. He described how he loved visiting Barnes & Noble in Mira Mesa and would “be there for hours” perusing books and video games. TMI Supported Employment Division Manager Cathena Ferrero presented this idea to their Assistant Store Manager Mary Anna Petyak, who thought it was a great idea based on the success of the TMI intern at their Point Loma location. Robert, with the support of his TMI Facilitator Laura Scott and encouragement from Barnes & Noble, blossomed in his new job.

When Robert first started in March 2018, he was very shy and struggled with making eye contact with customers, but with each passing day he worked in the Newsstand Department his knowledge of this very busy section of the store grew and, with that, so did Robert’s confidence. He learned to run the display shelves to their appropriate specifications and is now learning to use their software program to run reports to make his job run smoother. Store Manager Brad Bryant stated that maintaining the magazine department is one of the most important jobs at Barnes & Noble, and one that few are as good at doing as Robert. Robert did so well with his duties that his Paid Internship led to regular paid employment three days a week, four hours a day, which may expand in the future as Robert continues to develop his skills.

Robert working at Barnes & Noble

“The TMI Paid Internship Program is awesome because it allows employers to see that the clients are capable of doing the work without any risk involved,” added Bryant. “Having Robert working with us is great for employee morale and follows one of our core beliefs: our staff should reflect our community. Robert earned his place as an employee.”

Robert continues to receive TMI Tailored Day Services, which encourages our clients to self-direct and participate in determining their program day. We are here to help our clients plan their day their way. With the anticipation of maximizing life satisfaction, this exciting program tailors our client’s day based on their personal choices, hopes and dreams.

“Robert has really come out of his shell,” said Scott. “He is very inquisitive and very aware of the latest news related to books. He is a true trivia hound. He also loves to make wise cracks to connect with people to help them relax and make them feel good.”

Robert and his TMI Facilitator Laura Scott

Robert is now thinking ahead to next steps at work, taking ownership of his responsibilities, and clearly communicating with customers.

“Robert loves feedback and tries harder next time,” said Petyak. “It makes me feel great to see his progress. I worked at Robert’s school when he was little. When he came in to work with us, I knew immediately it was Robert. The same, but bigger. I am very proud of him.”

Robert, who is a graduate of the San Diego Unified School District TRACE program, was very involved with the Boy Scouts growing up and spent his summer after high school working at Yellowstone National Park as a whitewater rafting and backcountry guide. Robert also loves animals, especially his two dogs, Rosco and Mocha, and his cat, Max, and has spent time volunteering at the Helen Woodward Animal Center working with animals.

Robert working at Barnes & Noble

Robert’s position at Barnes & Noble is his first paid, non-seasonal job. When we asked him how that made him feel, he said that it was nice having money, but he also loves the sense of pride that it gives him contributing to his expenses. In his free time, Robert enjoys walking his dogs, going to the movies and catching up on his favorite Netflix shows including “The Office”. While he thinks it would be awesome to be a park ranger one day, he loves the work he is doing at Barnes & Noble and is grateful for the opportunity.

“I have truly seen Robert transform since working at Barnes & Noble,” said Ferrero. “It has been wonderful to witness his growth.”

Robert is helping to pave the way for other individuals with autism who may be struggling with interacting with others. He has shown that given the opportunity, he can shine! Great job, Robert! Thank you to Barnes & Noble for partnering with us to help transform Robert’s life!

(Laura, Brad, Robert and Mary Anna at the Mira Mesa Barnes & Noble)

(Laura, Brad, Robert and Mary Anna at the Mira Mesa Barnes & Noble)

Autism Facts & Stats

  • Autism now affects 1 in 59 children

  • Boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls

  • About 40% of children with autism do not speak. About 25%–30% of children with autism have some words at 12 to 18 months of age and then lose them. Others might speak, but not until later in childhood

  • Autism greatly varies from person to person (no two people with autism are alike)

  • The rate of autism has steadily grown over the last twenty years

  • Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder, yet most underfunded

  • Children with autism do progress – early intervention is key

  • Autism is treatable, not a hopeless condition

(Source: National Autism Association)


Toward Maximum Independence (TMI) has been transforming the lives of children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 1981 and the deaf and hard of hearing since 2000. TMI strives to help our clients to realize their hopes and dreams by providing Employment Solutions, Community Living Services and Family Support Services throughout San Diego, Riverside and Imperial Counties. To stay connected with us, follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Together we can share acceptance and awareness, ultimately contributing to further inclusion.

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