Devoted Family Inspires Creativity in Autism Community
When I started Autistic Hero Teeshirts, I was a stay-at-home mom with a brand new graphic design degree I wasn’t sure I would ever figure out how to use. I had been taking care of my children and going to school, and other than a few internships was struggling to find myself as well as my children’s next steps. Especially my son Jake, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Like many families affected by autism, we wondered about the future. Jake is a “classically aloof autistic.” He has behavioral issues—mostly aggression and emotional, violent outbursts and non-typical verbal processing skills that made being in district in a less restrictive environment impossible for Jake. He needed support all the time and often psychiatric interventions. We wondered as a family: Would Jake go to high school? Even more elusive, college? Or have a job?
The statistics are stacked against autistic employment. The unemployment and nonparticipation rate of employee age people with autism in the workforce is 80-90 percent. It was hard to figure out what to tell my son, who is very smart, what could be next and what he was allowed to dream. Basically, I had no idea.
Then I discovered that Jake is a great doodler. I found notebooks in his room and shared them when I went to graphic design college with my classmates. He was only a child at the time, and it was just a motherly gesture, but there was something unusual for Jake, whose language processing was delayed and facial affect was not very animated. The drawings were not like that. They had clear expressions. They showed happiness and teamwork and silliness to a level that was very heartwarming. It was a little peek behind the curtain of my son’s autism. I became inspired by these drawings, and as time went on, that inspiration formed the beginning of Autistic Hero Teeshirts.
In addition to getting a closer glimpse into Jake’s emotions, Autistic Hero Teeshirts has helped teach Jake new career skills and give him a sense of the working world.
I will tell the truth. I think at first Autistic Hero Teeshirts made Jake very uncomfortable. He did not like me looking at his drawings. He did not like socializing about it. He did not like people talking to him about it, but I felt something in my motherly instinct and heart that said it would be good for him. He would grow socially. As I had guessed and truly hoped, he has become very proud of Autistic Hero Teeshirts. He has grown into the business, and our efforts, and now loves it. We wanted to share that success.
At the start of the company, we set out to sell a product that everyone would like, not just the ASD community, allowing us to spread the word about the lack of job resources out there for people with autism. To further impact, we decided to donate $1 a shirt right off the top to autistic causes.
But one of the most gratifying ways that Autistic Hero Teeshirts has started to impact the autistic community is with our Artists Wanted Program. We have turned to the community via the Autistic Heroes Facebook Page and encouraged ASD artists of any age to submit a design for consideration to be featured on an Autistic Hero Teeshirt as a “featured artist.” The teeshirt is sold at live events and on the website with a small bio about each artist, their original artwork, and their photograph.
Jake and I write back to Artists Wanted submissions currently and share our thoughts about their work regardless of whether they are selected. We offer encouragement to keep being creative and show respect for and interest in each artist and their story.
We also post the artwork frequently on our Facebook page, which has become a supportive community where ASD artists can display their work and find a new income source. The posts are also a source of pride for the community in the same way that Jake has built up his confidence through the company. Our Facebook Page has grown to nearly 5,000 followers, and is growing.
Autistic Hero Teeshirts, which began as a means to empower Jake, has also become a way for him to pay it forward. Today, it is a positive force that can ignite the entrepreneurial spirit and inspire creativity in all members of the autistic community.
Based in Ridgewood, New Jersey, Melissa O’Sullivan is a graphic designer who is working with her son Jake Soper, a Junior at Ridgewood High School and a member of the autistic community, to create Autistic Hero Teeshirts. This clothing company turns drawings by Jake and those from members of the autistic community into wearable designs and gives back to autistic charities of their choice. Melissa is a Parsons The New School of Design graduate and has a Masters Degree in Vocational Rehabilitation for the Disabled from NYU.
This is article was featured in Issue 73 – Amazing Ways To Support Autism