How to Turn a Disadvantage into an Advantage for Students


Like all good dads, John D'Eri wanted a good life for his son—one that empowered him to work, have a social life, and add value to others. That's why he started a car wash that would employ young men with autism.

John D’ Eri is the CEO of Rising Tide Car Wash, in Parkland, Florida. He’s also the father of Andrew, his son with autism. Like all good dads, John wanted a good life for his son, one that empowered him to work, have a social life and add value to others. So, he started a car wash that would employ young men with autism.

And it’s working. Boy, is it working.

Rising Tide Car Wash has 43 employees —35 of them are on the autism spectrum. John and his wife discovered Andrew was autistic when he was only three years old. They quickly learned how tough life is for this kind of a kid—socially, emotionally and vocationally. They learned that once kids with autism age out of the system, most of them have no place to go in order to live and flourish as an adult. Educators call this “falling off the cliff.” It may not surprise you, but there’s a 90 percent unemployment rate for adults with autism. Ouch.

So, what does a car wash offer to a student with autism?

The work is very detailed and utilizes lots of processes. Both John and his oldest son, Tom (who is the COO) understood that this type of environment is a perfect fit for autistic team members. In fact, they note that people with autism, are typically:

  • Good with structured tasks.
  • Follow processes and system precisely.
  • Great in their attention to detail.

Sound like someone you’d like to wash your car? Tom says once the autistic young guys get in the groove, see the results of their work, witness happy customers and start making tips—they are absolutely energized. They get excited when they talk about washing a thousand cars per weekend.

A Competitive Advantage

What I love most about the D’ Eri family is this. They took an apparent disadvantage and turned it into an advantage. In fact, they call their employees with autism a “competitive advantage.” I love it.

So let’s talk about your situation.

Like all of us, my guess is you face certain situations or students every week and automatically see them as a disadvantage. We may not say it out loud, but it is easy to hide behind suboptimal realities like:

  • A kid with special needs.
  • A very small budget.
  • Colleagues who don’t “get it.”
  • Teens who get lost on social media.
  • A leader who’s difficult to work for.

What if you began to . . .

1. Think out of the box.

The D’ Eri family chose to see their problem as an opportunity. What positive traits did their autistic son possess that could be capitalized on and leveraged fruitfully?

How could your disadvantage be spun into an advantage? For instance, what if you challenge your students with the idea that a small budget might just be a perfect catalyst to cultivate resourcefulness. When we don’t have resources, we tend to get more resourceful. Profile it as an advantage and see what happens.

2. Talk about the “silver lining.”

What if we convinced ourselves to see life differently and talk about the positive challenge of overcoming the obstacle of racial tension at the school, or bullying, or cliques? After all, great leaders always emerge from great problems.

3. Approach it as a “risk” instead of a “rescue.”

When we approach kids with special needs or problematic schools as things that need to be rescued, then we create victims— victims of a broken system. It often leads to a victim mindset. What if we said: we see this as a great opportunity to take a risk and take initiative to solve a problem. John D’ Eri was not a car wash specialist—but he became one as he saw the solution it presented to him and his family. He took a risk and it paid off big time.

4. Think and play “win / win.”

The best solutions, the ones that catch on quickly, are ones that people can see all parties as winners. In the case of Rising Tide Car Wash, Andrew and his autistic colleagues build friendships, they earn a living and they feel affirmed. They begin to see possibilities in their future. At the same time, John gains a lucrative business. Cars are squeaky clean. And customers are happy and gain value.


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