Deniese Murray smiled as she filled plastic "bubble" containers with small dog figurines, finishing them one by one and tossing them into a cardboard box.
"I like working on these dogs," said Murray, 33, as she worked in a Columbia warehouse. "I like dogs."
Murray is one of about 20 people with autism who spend a few hours a day in the Linwood Center's vocational program. While Murray's group works in a warehouse packing vending machine bubbles with toys, others in the warehouse prepare donated clothing to be taken for sale to a store in Elkridge that opened in 2006 to employ adults with autism.
The vocational programs are among the services that the Linwood Center provides for Marylanders with autism. The Ellicott City-based center, one of the few in the state that works specifically with people with autism, includes residential programs for children and adults with severe autism, as well as educational, work and social programs, said Bill Moss, the executive director.
"Our kids and our adults are the most challenging individuals with this particular disability in the state," Moss said. "They need a lot of support. Autism is a lifelong condition, and these people are here for their entire lifespans."
The center, founded in 1955, serves about 50 autistic people and has a staff of about 170, Moss said. Housing for the participants consists of a home and dormitory on the main campus in Ellicott City, as well as 13 group homes scattered throughout Ellicott City and Columbia in Howard County and Catonsville in Baltimore County, Moss said.
Autism is a developmental disability that results from a neurological disorder, according to the Autism Society of America, a grass-roots advocacy organization based in Bethesda. The disability usually appears during a child's first three years of life and affects brain development in the areas of social interaction and communication.
Howard has the largest per-capita population of children with autism in Maryland, according to the Howard County Autism Society. While statewide, the average percentage of special-education students with autism is about 4 percent, in Howard County, it is about 8 percent, according to the society. This is in part because many families move to Howard to take advantage of the services the county offers.
One goal of the Linwood Center is to encourage the participants to communicate, which is a reason the adult work program is so important, Moss said.
"It's very difficult for our people to find jobs in regular settings," he said. Still, some participants are employed in the community, including one who has worked at Wal-Mart for 10 years and another who has been at Sears for 17 years.
But for those unable to obtain outside employment, the Linwood Center opened Good Deals Great Stuff in Elkridge to give adult participants the chance to learn work skills. The warehouse, which the center began renting a couple of months ago because of the rapid expansion of the store, is where some of the workers sort clothing and put it on hangers.
The center recently dedicated the store to Edgar Shilling, a former deputy fire chief who was on the center's board of directors for six years before he died in February.
"He was instrumental in getting the store off the ground and open," Moss said.
The event included members of the fire and police departments, County Executive Ken Ulman and the Howard High School marching band.
At Good Deals Great Stuff, nine autistic adults work full time, which is about four or five hours a day, five days a week, said store manager Phil Lewis. The participants earn paychecks, and, after wages are paid, the profits from the store and other jobs go back into the center's programs, Moss said.
Lewis said that one of the most memorable events during his time at the store was when one participant proudly walked across the shopping center to purchase a soda with his own money. Another employee had the confidence to go on a job interview.
"We're trying to develop that [confidence]," Lewis said. "We're trying to make sure we provide quality of life."
The participants in the work program include some who do not speak. Lewis said that participants use nonverbal communication with the staff, such as tapping a leg to tell someone that a bathroom break is needed.
Roxanne Smith, a cashier at the store, said the job is rewarding.
"I was just so happy to be working with these people because I'm happy to see them develop," she said.
Job opportunities beyond working in the store are also available. Murray, for example, is on a team at the warehouse that fills about 20,000 plastic containers a week to be used in vending machines, said Myron Saunders, a vocational support assistant, or "coach." The center has a contract with A&A; Global Industries, a bulk vending supplier, Saunders said.
Some workers also go to the landfills in Howard and Carroll counties once a week to pick up textiles, said Shevette Greene, another coach.
Cheryl Greene, vocational support coordinator for the Linwood Center, said the coaches encourage workers to have fun on the job to create a positive environment.
"They're just like anyone else. They don't want to work all the time," Greene said. "They're adults, and we give them choices."
Because of the center's growth, the county government has agreed to allow it to use an acre of land adjacent to the current location to expand, Moss said. The renovation of the current site and the building of a school is expected to cost $10 million, Moss said. The center is raising funds for that project.
"It's been our mission to create the possibility for extraordinary lives for people living with autism," Moss said. "This is something that's real and that's meaningful. They have a newfound self-esteem. You can see it."