April 2nd, 2015 was designated "World Autism Awareness Day," celebrated with ribbons, fundraisers, and blue lights displayed in cities around the world. However, for parents of children with autism, everyday is "Autism Awareness Day."
As the proud father of a wonderful 10-year-old boy with autism, much of my time is spent worrying about what opportunities will be available to him once he reaches adulthood.
Autism is a lifelong disorder. While much attention is paid to rising autism rates in children, the number of adults on the autism spectrum is increasing quickly and the nation is not prepared for the special challenges that come with this segment of the population. One of the areas of desperate need is employment. According to some estimates, the unemployment rate for adults on the spectrum exceeds 90%.
The problem is that many employers don't see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody with poor communication skills. We need new approaches that let businesses tap into the potential of this unique population segment. According to many autism advocates and the experience of progressive employers like Walgreens, innovative employment programs that focus on individuals with special needs can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.
A nationwide grassroots movement led by entrepreneurs working with adults with autism and their families is starting to address the problem. In Florida, a father/son team established an innovative car wash operation employing an all-autism daily workforce. In Texas, a partnership of two former technology executives has started a business for creating video games by individuals with special needs. In Kansas, a young man with the help of his family has put together a thriving kettle corn business, recently hiring additional workers with developmental disabilities. What these efforts have in common is that they are adopting new ways of thinking and are not afraid to adapt and rearrange workplaces to take advantage of the strengths and skills of the people in their communities.
One of the more interesting examples is an organization called Extraordinary Ventures (EV), based out of Chapel Hill, NC. One of EV's founders, portfolio manager turned social entrepreneur, Gregg Ireland, wanted to explore the concept of building a business around the skills of his son with autism, Vinnie, and others like him in the community. He noted that Vinnie had challenging behaviors and limited speech, but was a terrific and productive worker when in a structured environment. Ireland saw the same thing in dozens of young men and women--a strong affinity for predictable and familiar activity, and a strong work ethic.
Traditionally, companies focus on training workers to fit the work they intend them to do. But the EV team saw a new trend. Especially in places like Silicon Valley, managers are starting to recognize that talented people can perform best when the work environment is adjusted to suit them. Technology and social media companies are at the vanguard of designing campuses to fit their workforces. The EV team decided to make that their "secret sauce," designing jobs and workplaces precisely to fit the skills and needs of the people they were employing.
They set out to find the right businesses to launch. With limited resources, they steered away from those that required a large investment or might take years to develop. Given the inventoried characteristics of the labor, they avoided businesses with deadlines and time sensitivity and those where efficiency, rather than quality, was a main prerequisite. They wanted low-pressure businesses where the products made or services rendered could be clearly differentiated by quality, and therefore could have pricing power and a path to profitability.
Within a few years, EV had a team of managers and six business platforms along with numerous pilots and ideas. The criteria seemed to come down to: the underlying tasks were a good fit for the employees; they were able to start small and build over time; the activities and operations were not complicated or expensive to start up or manage; there was a clear path to profitability and, therefore, sustainability.
From just a few employees at the beginning, EV has grown to a workforce of 50. The employees tend to come in quite raw. For the majority, it's their first paying job, ever. But, after a short time, they get comfortable on the job and progress very nicely.
EV Managing Director Van Hatchell explained, "Overall, the workforce is incredibly productive and dependable, and the business works extremely well. So well that groups in Chicago, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts and Northern California are working on establishing businesses of their own based on the EV Model."
The EV experience has been eye opening to Ireland as well. He explained that he "realizes now more than ever that people don't want to be a burden. A job in our society is more than just a way to make a living; it defines an individual's identity."
When the workers at EV are accomplishing things on the job, they take great pride in knowing that they are indeed contributors. They also pave the way for countless other individuals with special needs who are in similar situations. We can only hope that other businesses around the nation start to learn these lessons and take advantage of this unique work force.