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I-Team: Leicester Man Claims He Was Fired For Having Autism

LEICESTER (CBS) – Fired for being autistic? That's what a Leicester man says happened to him at a local convenience store. The store disputes that, but his case highlights the challenges autistic adults face in the workplace.

Blaine Gonya is determined to get off disability and get a full time job. He is on the autism spectrum and he knew finding and keeping a job as a clerk at a convenience store wouldn't be easy.

"Being able to make eye contact with people, greeting people doesn't come as easy for me as somebody else who doesn't have autism," he explained to the I-Team's Lauren Leamanczyk.

Blaine, 21, says he told the store manager about his autism and the challenges when he was hired.

"They just brushed it off and said hey it's not going to be a problem," he said.

But then came a bad review from a secret shopper. The paperwork says "customer was not greeted when entering the store." It included suggestions that Blaine should "remain professional and smile when taking care of customers."

After two months on the job, Blaine was fired. He says the reasons were the symptoms of his autism.

"Do you feel like you were discriminated against?" the I-Team asked. "Yes," he said matter-of-factly.

Blaine's story illustrates a common conundrum for others on the spectrum.

Autism is a legally protected disability but that doesn't mean discrimination doesn't happen.

"It's constant and it's not a problem we've figured out how to solve," said Jamie Freed with the Asperger / Autism Network (AANE) in Watertown.

Freed and others, many of whom are on the spectrum themselves, work to help people with autism find jobs. Experts estimate 80 percent of people with autism are underemployed or unemployed.

"It's a huge untapped resource."

Todd Garvin works at AANE and is getting his master's degree in social work. He says he experienced subtle discrimination for years.

"Very often my assignments would be cut short without explanation," Garvin said.

Employment attorney Patty Washienko says employers do have to accommodate people with autism.

"The person has to be able to perform the essential functions of the job in order to be entitled to a reasonable accommodation," She explained. "The issue is what's essential."

Washienko says often companies know how to accommodate workers with physical disabilities. But for people with developmental and psychological disorders the accommodations sometimes aren't as obvious.

In Blaine's case, for instance, she might argue making eye contact and greeting customers warmly isn't essential for a convenience store clerk, but that's subjective.

"It can be a gray area. And that's one of the reasons it can be really tough."

Blaine has successfully held a part time job at Dunkin Donuts for two years. He says he's frustrated by his experience as a convenience store clerk. However, despite the setback, he'll continue looking for full time work.

"I'm trying to be independent for myself," he said.

In the meantime, Blaine has filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Last year more than 600 people filed disability related discrimination claims with the agency.

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