Fifteen years ago, Patrick Kamerick and John Dillencourt would have been living in an institution, their counselor says.

But each day the two, who are severely autistic, take a bus into Rockville from a group home in Wheaton and put in a full day's work in the print shop run by the Montgomery County government.

They are among 54 autistic, mentally retarded or developmentally disabled adults the county has hired during the past year as part of its "Affirmative Action Program Part Two," an extension of affirmative action hiring programs aimed at racial minorities and women.

"It's a good job," said Dillencourt, 32. "It's a sitting-down job -- you're not on your feet all the time." He works an electric collating machine, turning huge stacks of paper into the triplicate and quadruplicate carbon forms that are the backbone of bureaucracy.

"Jobs like this seem simple, once you get the routine," Dillencourt said. "It's just a matter of remembering the steps."

Autism is a brain condition characterized by hallucinations, daydreaming and a weak grasp of reality. Sometimes, as with Dillencourt and Kamerick, it is accompanied by mental retardation.

Victor Emenari, a counselor for the Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children, who works with Dillencourt and Kamerick, said the two men have become "high-functioning" through training.

Before they were hired, Dillencourt and Kamerick had worked as unpaid volunteers at the print shop at the Rockville library. Both had briefly held paid jobs for a local mail-order company, but they were laid off in a company reshuffle.

Now they are paid about $3.25 an hour, about half the normal starting salary for a print shop worker. Their pay is slightly less than minimum wage, which is allowed under U.S. Department of Labor regulations governing employment for the handicapped. It is worked out under a formula that compares the volume of work the disabled are able to do with that of workers without handicaps.

Across the print shop room, Kamerick, 34, was turning sheets of paper and cardboard into pads of paper, stacking them neatly and painting the edges with red gum. He said he enjoys his work, and he pointed proudly to stacks of pads he made earlier in the day.

Montgomery County has hired disabled persons as maintenance workers for the transportation department and the police training academy, and as book sorters at public libraries.

County officials say no grants or federal aid are involved. The county sets aside $170,000 a year for the salaries of employes hired through the program.

"It's really to make our world accessible so they, too, can compete for jobs," said Charles Short, the county's director of family resources, whose department runs the program. "We do have to make some accommodations, obviously. . . . But if we can help people find productive work, they will require less public service."

Alan Lovell, executive director of the Centers for the Handicapped in Silver Spring, said such programs could prove valuable in helping handicapped people who no longer are served by the school system's special education programs once they turn 21. While governments and private employers are finding an increasing number of jobs for the mentally handicapped, he said, Montgomery County is finding more jobs than are most jurisdictions in Maryland.

Much of the training of handicapped persons is "done in a sheltered environment," he said. "In this particular program, it gets our clients out in the community to perform meaningful work."

The program has worked well for Dillencourt and Kamerick, said their counselor, Emenari. "In a couple of years they can be on their own," he said. "We hope to wean them off the counselor. They'll be just like any other citizen in the county." He said their skills would be marketable at any print shop.

Robert L. Jenkins, who supervises the men, calls them valuable employes.

"They are definitely worth the pay," Jenkins said. "They're dependable. They are good steady workers. If you ask them to do anything, it's, 'Yes sir, no problem.' "

"I think its working out basically to the advantage of the county," he said. "I keep them limited to what they can handle -- working in the bindery area, collating, stapling, making pads, operating paper cutters and the drill press."

When the two men first started working in the print shop, he said, "they were very nervous. Now, since they have been here, they are just like one of the other employes. They go right to their job."

Dillencourt and Kamerick tend to forget things, he said, so he keeps them on repetitive work. "It's good for them to be in a working environment. It helps their self-esteem to be just getting ready for work."

The experience has been an education for the 21 other print shop employes who knew little about autism, Jenkins said. Before the two arrived, he said, "We heard stories they might start yelling, banging their heads against walls -- crazy stuff . . . .

"But it's not like that at all. Once we had them in here for a few weeks, there was nothing like that. They were probably more afraid of us than we were of them."