How a Woman with ASD Found Her Dream Job at Brain Power
Julie Esris – A Graphic Design Lead at Brain Power, and an Autism Advocate
Julie Esris always knew she had a creative flair and a talent for art, and she believes that society needs to rethink its perceptions of people with autism in the workplace.
Julie now has a rewarding job working as the graphic design lead at Brain Power, a technology startup that builds autism apps for Google Glass to help children with autism and adults obtain skills for independent living. She is passionate about working to empower the autism community, and she puts her skill and passion for drawing and animation to good use by producing digital artwork for the startup. Dr. Ned Sahin, the founder of Brain Power, has made it a central priority to actively hire and mentor employees who are on the spectrum. The people he hires often possess considerable raw talent but have been overlooked in a job market that does not value neurodiverse employees.
Julie’s path to this dream job was far from ideal. In fact, she describes it as “torturous.” She has a solid educational background, with both a bachelor in fine arts (with a concentration in animation) from the renowned Pratt Institute and a Masters in Library Science from Queens College, as well as additional training in web development at General Assembly. Despite this extensive background, she encountered many hurdles and setbacks before being hired by Dr. Sahin. We had the opportunity to talk to Julie about these experiences, and her journey to the fulfilling role she has today.
Q. Thank you, Julie, for taking the time to describe your journey. We hear a lot about how hard the job market is for people with autism, what has been your experience?
It was one setback and traumatic event after another over the course of 14 years of my life. When I finished my bachelor’s degree, first and foremost I wanted to live independently, but animation is an extraordinarily competitive field, and I couldn’t get a job in any field to save my life. I signed up for over a dozen temp agencies, but I didn’t have success. The few short-term jobs I did get were through my own searching, primarily through Craigslist. The work that I did often involved monotonous and menial tasks at companies who offered little future job prospects. This was mostly data entry and occasional customer service. I became bored, disheartened, and I thought, “I know I am smarter than this. Why can I not do better?”
Q. So what did you do?
I went back to school to get my Masters in Library Science, hoping to become a children’s librarian because I thought it would be a good outlet for my creative skills. I worked at two different libraries after graduation, but neither of these jobs worked out. There were a lot of misunderstandings in both of these jobs. In the first job, I disclosed being on the spectrum, but I felt that led to a lot of stereotypes and judgmental attitudes towards me. After this job, I felt like I shouldn’t be open about my diagnosis, so I made the decision not to disclose my autism at the second job. But this led to people thinking I had a problematic personality. So I was in a Catch-22 situation. On top of the misunderstandings that I experienced, both of these jobs had almost no training or mentorship.
Q. So what happened next?
So after the second librarian job ended, I decided that I was not going to put myself through that turmoil again in another library job. Here I was, in Boston, having to completely start over. When potential employers saw my checkered work history, a pattern that is common among people with autism, they just didn’t want to hire me. My parents thought the next step was for me to return to my childhood home in Pennsylvania, and look for work there. I remember being on the phone with my parents and telling them, “Hey, I have a life here.” After about a year of dead-end temp jobs, I made the decision to learn web development at General Assembly.
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There are so many stereotypes about people with autism, that we are all math whizzes and computer programming geniuses — that’s not me, that is my neurotypical brother—and in fact, many of us have difficulty in these areas. It is frustrating that the media incessantly portrays people with autism in this way. In my experience, these people are the exception and not the rule. But stories about people with autism struggling to find work and who are living with their parents aren’t exciting and don’t make the headlines. Despite my best efforts, I found the web development program was excruciatingly difficult, and I did not get a single interview when I looked for work.
Q. That sounds terrible, when did things start looking up for you?
One of the staff at General Assembly told me about a company called Brain Power. They told me about Dr. Ned Sahin, the CEO who was not only developing technology for people with autism but who also wanted to hire people with autism. Brain Power was looking for full stack developers, and I didn’t think I had the skills, but the staff member suggested I approach them, not with my coding portfolio but with some of my artwork. I went to a social event at the Cambridge Innovation Center, a huge startup hub in Boston where Brain Power is based.
I met a member of the Brain Power team who asked me to send my resume to them. I was surprised when I got an interview. At the interview, I noticed a world of difference from my past experiences. It was clear that Dr. Sahin and the Brain Power team knew a lot about autism, and I felt like I could be very open about my diagnosis and past experiences without worrying about these things affecting my chances of employment. A few weeks after the interview I got an email saying that they wanted to hire me. I couldn’t believe it. One thing that experts forget is that autistic kids become autistic adults, but not Brain Power. Dr. Sahin puts his money where his mouth is. Working at Brain Power is special. It is so rewarding to use my artistic skills to help people on the autism spectrum.
Julie describing her project to Brain Power Founder, Dr. Ned Sahin, and other team members.
Q. What has it been like working for Brain Power?
I have felt supported from day one. It has been vastly different from every past job that I have had. Brain Power has provided me with mentorship and time to improve my skills. I work alongside people with autism and neurotypical employees who fill a variety of roles. The people who work here are very kind, understanding, and honest. I feel like everyone is trying to advance the mission of helping the autism community. I love coming to work and being able to deliver on projects that will help people on the spectrum. I hope other people will have this opportunity.
Arshya Vahabzadeh, MD, is a physician-technologist who works alongside Julie at Brain Power.
Brain Power has created a digital coach that runs on smart glasses, to empower children with autism and adults to teach themselves social and cognitive skills toward happy self-sufficiency. The “Empowered Brain” runs on Google Glass and can teach children and adults how to recognize emotions, improve their ability to handle transitions/changes in activities, and to improve their attention to important social and facial cues.
Using smartglasses, like Google Glass, rather than tablets or phones that require looking down, encourages social interaction with others, keeping people heads-up, hands-free, and engaged with their families and the world. Brain Power recently received over $130,000 of funding through the autism community. The United States Congress has also directly awarded a substantial autism technology grant to the company. The technology is ready to pre-order, and further information can be found on the Brain Power website.
This article was featured in Issue 76 – Raising A Child with Autism