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At Nationals Park, autistic ticket taker yearns for more

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David Finland shows up to work at Nationals Park several hours early before each home game because, well, no one’s exactly sure why.

A 24-year-old from McLean, Finland settles into a bumper sticker-laden, paint-scraped and dented silver Toyota Corolla, turns on the radio, then a rock CD, then back to the radio and heads into town. Some days, such as a recent Wednesday, he gets lost and has to rely on his Garmin to find his way. But he always arrives well before it’s time to clock in.

When Finland gets to the park, he wanders, and like with most anything else the tall, skinny young man does, there is a degree of mystery surrounding his every thought and move. Finland has autism, a neural development disorder that constricts its subjects in non-uniform ways.

He says he gets to Nats Park early to watch the home and visiting teams take batting practice, but he’s often there well before that takes place. He also points out he’s not that into baseball anyway. He swings his arms as if he was a batter at the plate whenever he gets excited.

Then Finland, in his perpetually matter-of-fact way, says he likes to familiarize himself with the ballpark, and this points to his latest dilemma. In his fourth summer working for the Nationals, Finland is a ticket taker, but he aspires to be more. He wants to be an usher, like he was when he started out with the organization in 2009. He wants to one day be in a supervisor role so that he can carry around a walkie-talkie.

“I would like one,” Finland says, referring to a walkie-talkie such as the one his bosses carry on the job. “Just having something that, I don’t know, one of those devices. . . . I’m just pretty much always next to a person with one, and I always hear it going off. Man, I want one of those. It’s probably never gonna happen.”

No longer satisfying

Finland is a bit of an unusual case. A little less than 35 percent of young adults with autism have no paid job experience, nor have they spent any time in college or a technical school in the seven years following high school graduation, according to a study published last month in the journal Pediatrics.

Finland spent two years at College Living Experience in Florida and has held several part-time jobs, including the one at Nationals Park. The Nationals hired him after his mother, Glen, wrote a story in the Washington Post Magazine about how she hoped teaching her autistic son to ride the Metro alone might enable him to secure a job, and perhaps other semblances of a typical adult life.

He has a driver’s license and is an avid long-distance runner, but Finland is unimpressed by all of that. He has reached the point where pats on the back for overcoming his crossed neurological wiring no longer are fulfilling, and so he disassociates himself from his disorder’s byproducts.

“I know people with autism kind of like to be left alone. They like being ignored and everything,” Finland said. “I don’t really understand that crowd, the people with disabilities that just want to be left alone. If you want to be all paranoid, go ahead. I just don’t really understand that.”

When Finland first joined the stadium’s guest services staff, he was an usher. He loved interacting with the fans, and he loved being close to the field. But his superiors often told him he talked to fans too much and chided him for not staying in his assigned spot at the top of a section in the lower level concourse. By the end of the 2010 season, he was demoted to a position largely out of public view.

Prior to this season, Finland was placed under the guidance of his third boss in as many years. Billy Langenstein oversees 400 workers at Nationals Park, including Finland.

Langenstein moved Finland from working in a secluded position inside the stadium’s bowels last year to his spot at the forefront this season, and he also pledged to help Finland eventually earn a position in which he must carry a walkie-talkie.

“Working with David, he wants that responsibility to be that person, to be that leader and talk on the radio,” Langenstein said. “In the end, he has a goal in what he wants to do, and I think that’s great because I think that’s important. And I’m going to do everything I can to get him there.”

Ambitious and rash

There are times, Finland says, when those who work with and around him pay him too much attention. He says he can feel them staring at him, observing his every move, noting even his minor mishaps. He wishes they would just leave him be to do his job.

As Langenstein noted, “everybody interprets things a little bit differently,” and that is certainly the case for Finland. Langenstein checks in with Finland from time to time during Finland’s shifts. He said he does this with many of his workers. Finland’s father, Bruce, a D.C.-based developer, said he appreciates Langenstein’s presence around his son.

Finland has a different impression and no neurological filter to hold it in.

Langenstein is “always coming up to me and treating me differently than everybody else,” Finland said. “He comes up to me, like, every five minutes and is like: ‘Are you doing okay? Do you need anything?’ No, I’m fine.”

And by and large, he is. Finland is ambitious and rash and eager to please; he’s self-aware and still a bit shy around women. In those ways, he is similar to many other young men. But Finland’s developmental delays allow him neither to think too far into the future nor fully comprehend the present.

He wants to be invited back to work at Nats Park next summer. He wants to be an usher again. He doesn’t think it’s ever going to happen. He keeps showing up early, forging into territory he’s navigated before and getting lost nonetheless. No one is sure why — not his parents or his bosses or his coworkers.

Unconcerned with the answer, Finland pushes onward, doing what he’s supposed to do and searching for a way to do more.

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