An Unlikely Team: Autism & Combat Boots

I’m proud to report that on Thursday, August 12th, one of our goals as a group became a small reality as members of The 6th Branch watched around 100 attendees show up to support our first-ever fundraiser, “A Night of Awareness for Autism.”The success born out of the event wasn’t about the $4,600 raised, however.

As members, we believe The 6th Branch is about defying conventional partnerships prevalent in many cities and towns across this country. Our dream is to bring people together in a way that inspires both participants and spectators to get out and explore a new avenue of service.

In this case, autism met military service.

The Center for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (CAASD) at Towson University may be the last place you’d expect a newly-formed community organization with a heavy veteran influence to reach out to, but there’s more of a connection than you might think.

After meeting with Lisa Crabtree, the center’s Research and Grants Director, Rich Blake and BR McDonald realized there was something there that we could offer immediately as a group of recent veterans. Something so simple, BR and Rich couldn’t bring themselves to pass up the opportunity.


The mission of CAASD is to use the university as a “force multiplier.” Force multiplication is a concept used frequently in military leadership and strategy. In layman’s terms, it’s the ripple effect in action. It makes a lot of sense and here’s why.

As Lisa explained to me during the evening’s activities, the center works to promote awareness about the skills of adults with autism within the community.

“We want the students who are going to be hiring someday to know about these very smart, very talented individuals,” she said. She then explained where the multiplication effect comes in. “If we can get to them while they’re learning business skills, they can educate other people in the community once they’ve graduated and moved on.”

When I asked why adults with autism don’t get hired more often, the answer made me realize, as a 10-year Navy veteran myself, just how much we have in common.

“It’s the interview,” she said. “They can’t get past the interview. You need to be able to read people and there is this lack of ‘people skills’. On top of that, even though they generally do remarkable work once they’re settled, it takes a little while for adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to adjust to their environment. Employers simply don’t have patience for any of this.”

As a vet, I can relate. I can empathize. It’s the challenge of learning the culture and how to deal in a new environment. Transitioning from military to civilian culture is a beast. When you’ve done things in a regimental fashion for four years or more, you find that the so-called rigors of a civilian job are a cake-walk and expect more out of your co-workers than they may actually give. Your frame of reference needs time for refocusing.

In my case, it was my life narrative that had to be adjusted over time. For the first year after I left, it felt like every conversation or answer to a question started with, “Well, in the Navy…”

Likewise, an adult with an ASD is used to a pattern of doing things a certain way. While the adjustment will happen, it may not be as quick as an employer would like or expect. On top of this, ignorance as to what the effects of ASDs really are contributes to a fear of getting things wrong and possibly even avoidance of the issue altogether by those doing the hiring.

So – despite the superficial perception of completely unrelated experiences – the CAASD and The 6th Branch partnership makes sense and helps us reach one-half of our goal: Service to the community.

The other half is our next challenge – connecting veterans with community mentors… if that goes as well as this fundraiser did, then Baltimore is in for one heckuva new team.

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