The kids and shoppers at Walmart, 3300 Iowa, on Sunday afternoon, simply saw an eight-foot inflatable Chester Cheetah bouncing around, wiggling his ears and performing the somewhat limited dance repertoire that was possible inside the cumbersome costume.
But Gail Ellis, whose son, Andrew, a Lawrence High student, was inside the costume, saw much more.
“He’s so proud,” said Ellis, who raved about the increase in confidence she’s seen since Andrew took over the role of Chester as part of a joint effort to raise awareness about autism and promote employment for those with the disorder.
Andrew’s shift Sunday was his third in the pilot program, spearheaded by autism researchers and funded and sponsored by Frito Lay, which manufactures Cheetos, and Signs and Shapes Inc., the makers of the Chester costume.
In 79 Walmart locations across Nebraska and Kansas, the program has used the friendly and easily recognizable appearance of Chester to help those with autism spectrum disorders improve social skills, said Ray Burke, a researcher with the Omaha, Neb.-based Prevention Group, which helped design the program.
It seemed to be working for Andrew, who, even though he isn’t supposed to talk in his role as Chester, interacted with hundreds of customers throughout his shift.
“This confronts the disorder head-on,” said Burke, as many with autism spectrum disorders struggle with the interactions that for others seem casual and routine.
Burke said the pilot program is looking at expanding using the feedback from the experiences of participants like Andrew. Though it’s only temporary employment, Burke said the opportunity is an “inroad” to employment for those with autism, who as a whole have only a 10 percent employment rate.
“We’re looking at ‘is it feasible?’” Burke said of possible expansion of the program.
For Gail, the experience her son has had and the personal growth she’s seen have been “unbelievable.”