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Karlee Hasn't Let Autism Stop Her from Fulfilling Her Dreams!

Updated: May 27, 2022

Karlee, TMI Division Manager Tamara O'Brien, and TMI Job Coach Mary Hanson
Karlee, TMI Division Manager Tamara O'Brien, and TMI Job Coach Mary Hanson

When Karlee first started with Toward Maximum Independence (TMI), a nonprofit serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, she was in so much pain that she couldn’t sit up due to ailments that couldn't be identified, but with TMI's support and Karlee’s determination she persevered and landed her dream job at the San Diego Zoo Zootique! Zootique features international gifts, unique handcrafted items from around the world, gourmet foods, fashion, hats, jewelry, and much more! With the assistance of her TMI Job Coach Mary Hanson and TMI Division Manager Tamara O'Brien, Karlee is now thriving and looking forward to a bright future ahead. She shared her journey with us and where she hopes to go!

Q. How has TMI assisted you?

A. When I first started with TMI it was rocky because I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sit up. I still deal with pain, but I can manage it now. I used to talk about it a lot as well, but now I don’t. Getting a job has been a great experience. I have learned to talk to people and to overcome my nervousness. My co-workers have assisted me and are very nice. Having a TMI Job Coach has been very helpful because it has allowed me to achieve my goal of working the cash register.

Q. What challenges have you faced in life?

A. Having autism has been challenging because it makes things difficult for me. I have anxiety in social situations. I also can’t drive but I want to learn how.

Q. How have you worked through your challenges?

A. I never give up! I do art, listen to music, color, and spend time with my pets.

Q. How has working through your challenges made you feel?

A. It makes me feel happy.

Karlee at home with her dogs
Karlee at home with her dogs

Q. What was growing up like for you?

A. Growing up I always had animals which taught me responsibility. I am the middle child. I have an older brother and a younger brother who live in Hawaii with my stepmom. I am still friends with Serena who I met in high school. I am also friends with my funny friend Jake who I also met in high school. He likes to crack jokes.

Q. What are your hopes for the future?

A. I want to work with animals as a zookeeper. I have a big passion for animals, and I want to help them. I used to volunteer at the San Diego Humane Society socializing rabbits, guinea pigs and rats.

Q. Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

A. I am currently taking classes to learn how to develop products to sell over the internet. I am also learning how to run my own business.

Q. What advice would you give to others?

A. Never give up!

We are so happy that you stayed strong in the face of adversity, Karlee, and that you are now excelling! We can’t wait to see you continue to fulfill your dreams!

(Thank you to Tamara O'Brien for sharing Karlee's success with us and Mary Hanson for contributing to this story.)

It is the mission of the Toward Maximum Independence (TMI) Supported Employment program to support, enhance and educate the general workforce population on the contributing value of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Through personalized integration, training and advocacy, TMI helps to develop the capabilities and strengths of all people desiring to work.


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. In 2020, we launched Disabled Veteran Employment Services. TMI strives to help our clients to realize their hopes and dreams by providing Employment Solutions, Community Living and Family Support Services throughout San Diego, Riverside and Imperial Counties. To stay connected with us, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Together we can share acceptance and awareness, ultimately contributing to further inclusion.


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