by Marci Narum  |  Photography: Photos by Jacy

Every mother dreams of the amazing things her children will do. She hopes they might use their gifts to change the world someday. Cortnee Jensen has hopes and dreams for three children, as the mother to Cael, 11, Kembri, eight, and Camden, four.

But sometimes hopes fade and dreams are crushed, giving way to overwhelming fear and panic. That’s what happened right before Cael’s sixth birthday. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disability on the autism spectrum. The news was devastating for Cortnee and her husband, Ash.

“Because, of course, the first thing you do as a parent who loves your child is go online and start doing research,” says Cortnee. “I saw things like ‘the vast majority of people with autism will never marry or have children, 80 to 85 percent are unemployed or seriously underemployed; it doesn’t matter where they fall on the spectrum.’ I panicked as a mom. My child will never know the type of happiness that I know—a wonderful marriage relationship, beautiful children; a life worth living based on my definition. As a parent all we want is for our children to be happy. To have meaningful lives. And I was looking at a future in which my child would maybe not have that.”

UNIQUE ABILITIES

When Cael was nine, Cortnee’s perspective about her son’s future began to change. She learned about a nonprofit organization in Fargo, North Dakota that doesn’t look at autism as a disability. Mind Shift sees individuals with high-functioning autism as people with unique abilities.

“And I said, ‘Yes! That’s my child!’ My child is brilliantly smart. My child has a high level IQ. He can do electrical circuitry. And he’s nine. He has unique ability. I don’t know any other nine year olds who do what he does.”

Cortnee began to see a glimmer of hope return for her son.

HIRING & TRAINING SPECIALISTS

Today, Cortnee works for Mind Shift. She speaks passionately with parents, business owners, and the public about the organization’s purpose and mission—to pair individuals who have unique abilities with partner businesses. She calls it a business/nonprofit hybrid. Mind Shift has a 501(c) 3 status; it relies on grants and private donations but the ultimate goal is to be a self-sustained organization. Cortnee stresses it is not a charity. She says it’s good business.

“We are set up to be a benefit to the businesses we place people in. We’re not expecting companies to hire these people as a charity. We are saying these are people with skills that have business value to you.”

Mind Shift hires and trains the individuals, known as “specialists” because of their highly-specialized skills and unique abilities.

“We need their detail orientation and computer-like minds to do work that other people don’t necessarily want to do. The really detailed, focused work that they are uniquely qualified to do. There is still a lot of data and technology, and quality assurance testing for that technology in the workplace. We need people who can do that.”

VALUED EMPLOYEES

Mind Shift has placed 22 specialists in Fargo and Minneapolis. These are brief profiles of three in Fargo:
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Forrest:
Diagnosed with autism at the age of 10, Forrest had always been told he was bright. But he says he never felt comfortable during interactions with other people.

“…like there’s a big social rulebook that I never received,” Forrest explains.

After graduation Forrest struggled to find and keep jobs. He became depressed and eventually homeless. Then he found Mind Shift. The agency hired and trained him, and connected him with Eide Bailly, which also received training to understand and respond to the behaviors of someone with a mind like Forrest’s. He has worked at the company for two years.

“With the support I receive at Mind Shift, I don’t fear becoming unemployed, and I feel like a valued member of my workplace,” says Forrest.

201706-mindshift-058Alex: Alex is highly intelligent and possesses acute focus. He had hoped to attend college and pursue his dream of becoming a software designer. But because of his autism, Alex battles high anxiety, struggles to understand social rules, and needs to stick to a routine without changes. College didn’t work out. Nor did his job corralling carts for a major retailer.

Alex’s parents wanted to see their son live a fulfilling life and follow his dream. He’s doing both since becoming a specialist and going to work for Appareo Systems as an assembler of high-end electrical components.

“This means that I have successfully made a big step in my life and I feel proud to say that I am a working man,” says Alex.

201706-mindshift-028Heather: Typically, autism is diagnosed when a child is between the ages of three and five. Heather was diagnosed with borderline autism and ADHD when she was 13. She becomes agitated by certain textures, flashing lights, vibrations, and sounds. These sensory triggers make it extremely difficult for her to focus. Heather’s part-time jobs in the fast food and cleaning industries made it very difficult for her to enjoy a satisfying and successful work life.

In January, Mind Shift paired Heather with Bell Bank, where she is scanning and indexing loans and other documents.

“I have to be accurate and fast but I can still be me and make it as fun as possible,” says Heather. “I finally have a grown up job. I’m very happy there. I’m working at a place where the work is important and I feel like I’m making a difference.”

HOPE RETURNS

Cortnee says there are no solid statistics on the number of people diagnosed on the autism spectrum in North Dakota. But there is one statistic that she knows well, as Cael’s mother.

“The suicide rate for people on the autism spectrum is nine times that of the normal population. They don’t have a place to feel valued oftentimes. They don’t have a place to feel part of something. And as a mother of a child on the spectrum that hits home,” says Cortnee, tears filling her eyes. “And we want them to have a place to shine and a place to fit in.”

Cortnee says she can finally hope and dream for Cael’s future again. His gifts just might change the world.

“My child isn’t done yet. None of us are done. And if we are willing to talk about these things and work together and lean on each other then we can learn and grow as a society, and value each other differently and better. Beyond that, what Mind Shift is specifically allowing is a space for the beautifully intelligent minds like my son’s, and Forrest’s, Alex’s, and Heather’s.”   

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