Joanne Lara

Joanne Lara

For two hours, Joanne Lara, a spirited woman with a luminous smile, coached seven young men and women in what seemed like just another job-skills seminar. But for these adults with autism, job training takes extra effort.

Lara, executive director of Autism Works Now!, looked at one participant, Cameron Rosin, a slim, shy man, and asked, “What is your dream job?”

Cameron hesitated, but Lara reassured him. Cameron wants to work at a movie theater. Others shared their dreams as well. Lacey, the group’s only woman, hopes to work at a Disney Store. Chris, who loves animals, already works at a ranch, thanks to Autism Works Now!

From kindergarten to high school graduation, students with autism are rarely encouraged to dream about future jobs.

Lara, who recently worked on Hillary Clinton’s Disability Employment task force, created Autism Works Now! to provide job skills to people with autism. She and Susan Osborne, the Workplace Readiness Director, meet weekly with young men and women affected by autism, prepping them in workplace survival skills – from breathing exercises to relieve stress to punctuality. They take field trips to places like 20th Century Fox Studios and Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, where the human resources director interviewed the job seekers.

“It looks really simple but nobody’s doing this,” Lara says. “Nobody is asking them what they want to do with their lives.”

The parents appreciate their efforts.

Judy Markel, Cameron’s grandmother, has noticed a difference in Cameron. “He used to be very quiet. Now we sit down and have conversations. He joins in the conversation at dinner.”

Priscilla P. said her son, Zack, 24, loves the sessions. “He’s got friends here. He’s learning job and life skills. There is nothing like this as far as I’m concerned. Joanne Lara is a trailblazer.”

Lara’s early years shaped her ability to relate to people with disabilities. She was the seventh of 12 children born to a poor mother in a rural Georgia town. Most of her siblings had rickets and slept in boxes.

Due to the deplorable and immoral living conditions, the state placed 10-month-old Joanne and four of her siblings on a foster farm where the family grew tobacco.

At 2½, Lara was adopted by a wonderful couple. Her new father was a Miami architect, businessman and self-made man, as well as a decorated World War II fighter pilot. Overnight, Lara went from rags to riches.

“My early beginnings have everything to do with what I do now,” Lara says. “I’ve come to understand why I’ve been able to relate to children and adults with disabilities. They live in the same people-don’t-understand-me world as I lived in – only they don’t have a voice.”

Lara found her voice in dance. After graduating from the University of South Florida in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in dance, she joined the Fairmont Dance Theater in Cleveland and then the Louis Falco Dance Company in New York. She moved to Los Angeles in 1985, doing everything from bartending to dancing in music videos and hobnobbing with the likes of Madonna, Sean Penn and Khandi Alexander. By 1997, her body aching from decades of dancing, she became a substitute teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In one of her first calls, she thought she was subbing in an art class. The middle school receptionist glared: “Honey, we don’t need an art teacher. You must mean the AUT class.”

Lara walked to a bungalow near the school’s dumpsters and opened the door to find eight middle school students, one singing “The Addam’s Family” song. Lara went with it.

After two years of working with children with various disabilities, she sought her teaching credential and spent six years taking night classes at Cal State Northridge, earning a Moderate/Severe Education Specialist credential and a master’s degree in Moderate/Severe & Multiple Disabilities Special Education.

It was obvious during that decade of teaching that conventional teaching methods were not benefiting students with autism. Drawing on her life as a dancer, she brought movement and music into the classroom, developing a body-brain-based method to nurture language, social skills and behavior development.

“Individuals with autism have a neurological impairment,” Lara explains. “It’s not a disease. There are some areas of the brain that are not functioning correctly. Music and movement fulfill every one of those needs.”

Lara saw children who couldn’t talk begin to speak, and others with no friends develop friendships. “There was so much progress that could be made with interventions through the arts.”

After leaving LAUSD, Lara became a core adjunct professor at National University. In 2009, she founded Autism Movement Therapy. Since then, she has worked with more than 500 individuals and trained more than 650 people as certified autism therapy providers. She has traveled the world, raising awareness about the importance of movement and music. Her book, “Autism Movement Therapy Method,” published by Jessica Kingsley, details her method.

She realized she had more work to do when the students she had worked with had no jobs after high school. “They live at the back of their parents’ house for the rest of their lives. . . The public schools aren’t preparing these young adults for jobs.”

In September 2015, Lara launched Autism Works Now! to rectify the situation. Renowned autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin kicked off the program with an event at Club Nokia. Lara’s book, co-authored with Osborne and based on her work with Autism Works Now! is due out this year. Lara, who worked with Clinton on her strategy for disability employment, now worries about the effect of federal cutbacks. She plans to fight for the rights of people affected by autism nationwide.

On a local level, she wants to provide opportunities to the young autistic adults in her groups. On a recent evening, after sharing pizza and cupcakes to celebrate two members’ birthdays, she posed a question that prospective employers often ask: “Why should we hire you?” The answers varied from Luke’s “I don’t give up” to Nicholas’s “I learn quickly and adapt to any situation.”

Lara smiled. “People with autism don’t want a life of nothing,” she says. “They want a reason to get up and out in the morning. They want a seat at the table.”