A musician spotted his son’s gifts. Now he’s helping get jobs for people with autism
Danny Combs went from professional musician to renowned autism activist.
Eight years ago, Danny Combs was a successful musician making a living on the stages of Nashville, playing with the likes of Taylor Swift.
Today, he’s one of the most outspoken activists for the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) community and manages a groundbreaking initiative that helps scores of people with ASD find good-paying, fulfilling jobs. This fall, he was invited to the White House to advocate for the ASD community’s inclusion in the workforce.
So, how did a Nashville musician become an advocate for the ASD community?
Combs’ life took a 180-degree turn when his son was diagnosed with autism. He quickly noticed his son’s tremendous gifts and skills, yet Combs also saw how an overwhelming majority of the autism community —almost 2% of the total U.S. population — struggles to find employment. The ASD community has one of the highest unemployment rates. Though numbers range, studies and experts like Combs say the unemployment rate among people with autism approaches 90%.
Danny felt the need to do something, so he founded Teaching the Autism Community Trades (TACT), a Denver-based organization teaches ASD students the skills to land jobs in a range of industries, from carpentry to computer science to welding.
It worked. About eight of every 10 TACT graduates find a job after finishing the program.
But neurodivergent people are not the only ones benefiting from TACT’s innovative approach. Businesses are tapping the benefits of an often-overlooked sector of the economy by hiring highly talented workers.
We talked with Danny about TACT’s beginnings, how his work has changed his life, the challenges the neurodivergent community faces today, and what the future holds for TACT.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Stand Together: You started TACT over seven years ago. Tell us a little bit more about when you founded it. Was there a moment that inspired you to start TACT?
Danny Combs: I was inspired by my son Dylan. I saw him go into all these different therapy groups, but at the same time I recognized how much strength and talent he had. It was so good seeing him do amazing things with his hands where he could visualize and conceptualize and make these amazing 3D things before he could say “Hello, dad.”
So, I started looking for strengths-based organizations. I was looking to see if there was somebody out there doing something similar, but I was blown away there was no one else doing it already.
The moment I finally decided to go for it was after meeting Dr. Temple Grandin [a renowned academic and author who has autism], who is an amazing individual, and I had the chance to tell her about my idea. I had the chance to meet her and tell her about the strengths of my son and the idea of the program. And she’s like “You have this opportunity right now, so do it.”
And so, I did.
That’s an amazing story. How did you get the idea to focus on community trades for helping neurodiverse kids?
The community focus was always at the forefront.
There’s so much within the autism world and the neurodiversity world where everything is kept segmented, atomized, and apart. The idea was to bring everybody together and actually create a genuine, authentic community.
The trades are just perfect vessels for developing employment skills and tackling this incredibly high unemployment rate. The autism community is still the highest unemployed demographic in the country. It’s still legal to pay sub-minimum wages to people with disabilities [in many states]. That’s just wild.
There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity within the trades. There’s mass openings and opportunity. Neuro-distinct individuals are very good at a lot of the jobs that exist within the trades. It seems like this obvious can of worms that no one’s unpacked yet for whatever reason.
We started diving into it, focusing on it from that approach, and it’s proven to be incredibly successful. Where the national average is essentially a 10% success rate, at TACT 83.3% of learners find a job after they finish the program.
We are dramatically ahead of the curve. We’re tackling this not only from the community’s perspective but also a poverty perspective. The average autistic adult who’s working is only earning $186 per week — far below the poverty line. At TACT, our average graduate makes $19.86 an hour.
Tell me about the times at TACT when you feel really proud of what you are doing.
It sounds weird to say, but one of my favorite parts is lunchtime, when all the kids are laughing and playing.
I know that’s a weird answer, but it’s one of my favorite parts because a big stereotype that you hear on autism is that our community is not social. But when you see a group of kids that are breaking the barriers of that stereotype, redefining it and showcasing that, yes, they are social and that they’re laughing and playing and engaging and they just haven’t been set up for success. I just love it. It’s my favorite part.
An easier answer would be to say like, you know, seeing the moment that they first recognize their strengths and getting them their jobs, and all the things we’re doing. But it’s just that human moment of watching a group of people be people and just laugh and play and be happy together. I love it.
What does a regular day in your life at TACT look like?
It’s pretty great. We work with over 12 different school districts and a few dozen different nonprofits. We call it controlled chaos, where there are kids coming from everywhere and young adults (I say kids, but they’re younger than 40) who are coming from all over.
We get them placed into their different classes. We have auto mechanics, welding, carpentry, electrical, and cyber security, and a program we call “tech for the trades,” which is like 3D-modeling and AutoCAD and such.
So a normal day would be getting them situated into their learning and training, then juggling all the kids that we’ve got employed checking in with them.
The biggest part is helping let people know that this demographic is there and it seems like a lot of change that’s being brought about is from these individuals themselves and parents. It seems like parents are really standing up, they’re recognizing and starting to see what that future looks like.
A lot of families, including mine before I started TACT, have been told for a long time what’s wrong with their kid and that wears on you. Parents are finally hearing their kids have strengths and talents, that they have a lot of amazing things they could share with the world.
Are those the little moments that motivate you to keep going?
It feels like every day we’re getting closer and closer, and it seems like it’s snowballing where more and more people are becoming aware. More foundations support us and more employers hire our graduates, and it seems like it gets closer and closer to our vision of genuine inclusivity.
You were invited to the White House for a roundtable discussion about accessibility. How did that go? It sounds exciting.
It was with the White House Science and Technology Office as well as NASA, the Department of Labor, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Patent and Trademark Office, Smithsonian. It was neat. I was one of four people they had presented as part of this panel and I was the only non-Ph.D., so that was kind of an interesting thing, to be the only non-Ph.D. there.
It was very humbling. They’re trying to reshape the policy for STEM education and finally starting to recognize our community as having something of value to that.
It’s amazing how many doors have opened to TACT.
What’s in the future for Danny Combs? What’s on TACT’s plate next?
I have a book coming out in December. It will be my first book being published, which I’m really excited about. That comes out on Dec. 22 and it’s all about transition and autism services.
TACT is hopefully going to finally start growing next year into other states. Our plan is to have it throughout Colorado in 2024 and then go national in 2025.