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Yes She Can Is All About Girl Empowerment

Nearly 80% of adults with autism spectrum disorders are unemployed. How one mom set out to change that.

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mother and daughter opening box with doll in it
Bee Johnson
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Every American Girl doll has a backstory. Meet Isabelle, a young teen who dreams of becoming a hairstylist in the city. Challenged by her autism spectrum disorder (ASD), her mother starts a nonprofit that teaches her, and girls like her, job skills.

Except this story is true. In 2013, Marjorie Madfis founded Yes She Can, an organization that “develops transferable job skills for teen girls and young women with autism spectrum disorders to enable them to join the competitive workforce.”

Isabelle is her daughter, who wanted to style doll hair at an American Girl store. Today she works at Girl AGain, an American Girl resale boutique run by Yes She Can, with other women with ASD. Here they are trained by “coaches” — psychologists, speech pathologists and social workers — to succeed in a work environment.

When kids get older and are no longer in school, “parents are desperate,” says Madfis, who spent 30 years in corporate marketing. “You have kids who are nonverbal or self-injurious on one end, and on the other there are those who are independent, who have social challenges but function well in the neurotypical world. Then there are those in the middle. Many are stuck in day-hab, and parents feel they don’t belong in that environment. There’s no room for growth and development. Their kids are used to being in integrated classrooms and want to be in an integrated world.”

At the Girl AGain store in White Plains, N.Y., trainees (age 17 and up) are taught to process, price and sell secondhand American Girl merchandise. “We try to have one coach for every two to three trainees,” adds Madfis, who uses proceeds and fundraising donations to hire qualified aides. “It takes a lot of emotional regulation, energy and resilience to keep themselves together. Our goal is for them to manage four-hour shifts.”

Here are a few of the steps that present unique learning opportunities.

Step one: “This is the most challenging — we get a box of donated stuff that’s not organized. The trainees go through the doll clothing, but they don’t understand the concept of estimating. We can count dolls and beds, but we can’t count outfits. We make our own — we’ll grab two articles to make one.”

Step two: “We weed out Barbie and Build-A-Bear clothing — that involves sorting and visual recognition. We teach them to do web-based research about the original outfit so we can log it on a spreadsheet. There’s a coding system: outfits, accessories, furniture. What condition did it arrive in? What was the original price? Then they have to figure out what our price should be. They may need to go on e-Bay and compare. This poses a challenge. It may have cost $40, but it may not be worth that now. We teach them a process so they can work on reasoning.”

Step three: “They create hang tags for the item and display it — but where does it go? These steps provide opportunities for learning but also frustration, and our coaches teach them how to deal with it. We want them to learn how to talk to a customer. ‘Is the customer acknowledging you’re talking about Felicity? If you’re not sure, speak two sentences and wait for a reaction.’”

Madfis also wants the community to interact with people with developmental disabilities. “Little girls come in, they see someone who presents with autism but who can talk about American Girl dolls. Now they don’t see her as weird, just as someone with knowledge. Employers are understandably anxious about hiring people with autism. Now they’re seeing that they may be a little quirky or challenging, but they can make contributions.”