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I went to Chapel Hill, NC, to attend the first conference on autism employment entrepreneurship (January 27-29) and joined 150 others from across the country who were business founders (for profit and non profit) , funders, educators, social service providers, and people considering starting businesses designed to employ people with autism

full time employment

The conference was sponsored by the Ireland family who found Extraordinary Ventures 5 years ago. One of their ventures is operating an events space, so naturally we met there. It’s a nice two story building across the street from a shopping center which includes Whole Foods. On the upper level is a large open space for events. Downstairs is where three of their other ventures are housed. We were given a tour of the operations and observed a laundry business servicing the frat houses of Duke and Chapel Hill, a candle making business, and a mail room business. They also brought in a Chapel Hill community bus to their parking lot to demonstrate how their employees clean the city buses, usually done at the depot.

Extraordinary Ventures worked with the UNC TEACCH program to apply the TEACCH methodology to work tasks using lots of visuals to provide step by step instructions. Most of the jobs at EV were designed with their own son’s level of functioning as the baseline; this includes jobs with repetitive tasks and consistent cadence of work. As some workers demonstrate more skill, they are given more responsibility. We had a chance to watch staff at work.

job tasks

The Irelands had two of their adult children helping with the event. Their son with autism came to work for a bit too.

Extraordinary Ventures, a non-profit, decided to take advantage of the college town and hired 5 young adults who wanted to have the opportunity to be entrepreneurs. These young business managers liken it to Teach for America where they dedicate a few years of hands on experience before heading off to business school. They are given the freedom to try business ideas that may fail and have learned to create businesses that fit their employees skills but also meet a market need. They manage the business based on business principals, and lead with the business value, not with the social mission.

For example they discovered that when advertising using Google Ad words, that ads with out the word “autism” pulled better response than ads with “autism”.

Rising Tide car wash is a for-profit business in South Florida. Because of the equipment needed, the land and insurance, the start up costs were extensive – about $3 million. They have been in business for 10 months. Because they created their own very detailed training processes for their employees they learned to not hire people who have had car wash experience. The training process they put their employees through helped to create social bonds, a real challenge for those with autism. They also found that while many people with autism are not motivated by money, that in fact their best employees are. They particularly respond to the tips (which increased when customers were informed of the mission of the car wash) They have a site to share their business concepts: Can Do Biz

 why a car wash

AutonomyWorks is a benefit corporation, a new type of corporation structure that allows executives to make decisions that are in the best interest of the business mission even if it does not maximize profits. The founders chose the for profit approach because they wanted to attract capital from investors. They identified the business opportunity to do work that many corporations have been off-shoring or out-sourcing (ie sending to India, Singapore, or other low wage English-speaking countries). The work includes marketing operations such as website content management, quality assurance, analytics and reporting such as analysis of marketing campaigns, or social media analytics.

They lead with their business mission rather than their social mission and need to be competitive in order to get contracts. Their goal was to get as good as neurotypical but found they are better than NTs. AutonomyWorks requires their employees to delivery a quality product that meets their standards but is flexible on productivity.

To on-board staff they have them job shadow to introduce them to the work, since interviews just don’t work for people with autism. They need to demonstrate what they can do. AutonomyWorks designs their work assignments for the way people with autism learn and work best.

AutonomyWorks management created work instructions with visuals, they apply good management practices including setting clear expectations, providing feedback on performance

Employees have their say

A panel featuring two employees shared their work experience. Patrick who worked in the EV laundry was quite self-aware when he said he can handle change if only one thing changes at a time. He was told he should think of himself like a rubber band that should be stretched, but only so far before it breaks. Another employee who worked in a bike shop talked about turning obsessions into something that is more productive. He said he would like to be able to advocate for people with autism.


Peaks and Valleys

A panel of support staff talked about the great variability between strengths and weaknesses – with high highs and low lows. Unlike the school system which looks for what is broken and attempts to fix that, the work place is where strengths and skills are identified and focus is put on that. Look to apply an employee’s strength to a job task – which may mean defining micro-tasks.

What about girls

In response to my question about any differences between the male and female employees, one of the business managers stated, compared to parents of boys, the parents of girls seem to underestimate what their children can do; they tend to think they have significant limits and the parents are more “protective” of their daughters.

Part 2 to come.