Employment Matters…Especially for Those on the Spectrum
The job of “raising” a son or daughter significantly impacted by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) does not come to an end when your child reaches the age of majority. It just shifts to a new realm. Indeed, adulthood brings significant new worries and new challenges.
Vital concerns for parents of emerging adult children with ASD include health/healthcare, safety, housing, and a good social life. But another component, employment, can be every bit as crucial for building a fulfilling life of purpose—the kind of we all want for our offspring.
In our society, somehow a job is more than just a way to make a living. At some level, it’s an identity. Seemingly innate to the human spirit, people with disabilities, or not, want to be included and involved—they want to be contributors. They want that as their identity!
Thus, having a responsible job can (and almost always does) lead to purpose, confidence, and pride, as well as personal growth in unexpected ways. On the other hand, being idle—unemployed, sitting at home, nothing to do—can be debilitating.
My wife, Lori, and I began to appreciate this when we began to look ahead to own son’s adulthood several years ago. Right after worrying about where he might live, who would look after him if not us, would he be safe, etc., we broached the question of would he work and in what capacity.
In 2007, when our son was 17, we began networking with families in the same situation. One idea led to another, and eventually Extraordinary Ventures was formed.
Initial ideas centered on advocating for our children with employers, but we decided that we knew our children well and would have a much better chance of creating jobs that matched up well with abilities if we did it ourselves. We also took note of the fact that the unemployment factor for people with disabilities in our area was very high. There were few jobs, and the ones that existed were often not compatible, or we knew the employers had finite patience.
Extraordinary Ventures was launched in 2008. The mission was to develop real job opportunities for people with autism and disabilities. We became a non-profit and raised funds to launch the organization, but we decided early on that we’d run the enterprise as a real, self-sustainable business– addressing one of our goals to have something that would finance itself and stand the test of time, rather than require us to raise money, or ask for government help, every year.
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We started with a laundry business. A number of our early employees loved the pace, and we were able to break the process down so that everyone had work they could do successfully. Later, we got into mailings and office services. What began as a small-scale sorting and stuffing operation turned into a profitable, automated business, turning out 50,000 letters/month with machines that our people have learned to master.
Once we learned that some of our employees were volunteering at the animal shelter, we decided we could launch a dog walking/cat sitting business. Another time, we used the fact that one of our employees loved to cook and follow recipes. We didn’t want to get into food, so we created a candle-making business (along with a range of soaps and personal products) where we set the production up as a recipe-following endeavor. Today, our candles and other gifts are sold in stores and online.
Today, we have six business units, 55 employees and a budget of around $1 million. And yet we know we have only scratched the surface. Most important of all, our employees are working, getting paid, part of an effort greater than themselves. Every day we are learning new lessons about the skills of the people. I could write a separate story about what our people have accomplished and what it means to them. If you are interested, you can see the documentary, Extraordinary People.
Our success led us last year to fund a filmmaker to create a documentary about our people and our organization. The result is a short film called Extraordinary People. It highlights six of our employees, what they do, how they’ve experienced personal growth, and what their jobs mean to them.
It’s a wonderful film full of ideas and inspiration for families looking for new ways to think about employment for their sons and daughters who don’t have, and sadly won’t have, the same opportunities as others for good jobs in the mainstream economy, mostly due to social skills.
We’ve shown the film in private screenings across the country and on Capital Hill. The message is that it’s possible to have a small business in any community dedicated to employing people with disabilities that does not rely on government funding but relies instead on providing needed and valuable goods and services—being a part of the economy, rather than a burden on it.
Another message is that with a creative approach and flexibility, people with disabilities can thrive. It takes patience and some investment, of course. But in the end, people who otherwise may exist on the edges of society are integral to it.
Indeed, at Extraordinary Ventures, we do not take government money and, in fact, our employees are taxpayers! What’s better than that?
This article was featured in Issue 90 – Practical Ways to Build Skills for a Lifetime