Extraordinary Ventures for Adults With Autism

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Employment of Adults with Autism through Small Business 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012Autism Speaks

by Van Hatchell, Director of Marketing and EV Gifts at Extraordinary Ventures, Inc.

Over the past few years the first wave of children diagnosed with ASD in the early ‘90s have entered adulthood. As their parents searched for things their children could do after high school, they began to realize the difficulties associated with an ASD child’s transition into becoming a functioning member of society. Sure, there are some agencies that help coach those with ASD through small jobs, but there are very few places that actually employ them.

It was out of this realization that a few parents in Chapel Hill, NC banded together to create Extraordinary Ventures (EV). EV’s mission as nonprofit is to employ adults with autism through creating small businesses. As with starting any business, these parents soon discovered this was no easy task. They encountered many problems along the way. They had to find business models that highlighted the skills of their children, sustainable markets that would lead to sufficient revenue streams to sustain the businesses and they had to find a team to manage what was created.

Out of these hurdles came five local businesses:

EV Gifts is a products business that creates scented candles and bath salts that are sold on our online store and through retail locations.
EV Laundry is a wash-dry-fold, pick-up and delivery laundry service that serves the students of UNC – Chapel Hill and the surrounding community.
Gravesite Guardians is a headstone aesthetics business that beautifies the gravesites through headstone cleaning, seasonal flower placements and bronze refinishing.
Event Center is a space rental business that utilizes a diverse facility to host conferences, weddings and social events.
Contracted Services is a program that manages contracts with the town of Chapel Hill, such as cleaning the public transportation buses.

The tangible results of our businesses are proof that our model of employment is working. For example, Alex, an employee of EV Gifts and Contracted Services, never had a paying job before EV. Since his employment, he has become an integral part of our teams, pays taxes and uses his paycheck to pay for his families’ water bill – a fully functioning member of society. While this may not seem like much to a normal adult in our society, this gives Alex a sense of purpose that he would have never experienced otherwise.

If you would like to help us in our mission to employ adults with ASD, we have just released 5 new spring and summer scented candles that you can buy. If you purchase a single candle it will employ three adults with ASD.

If you are you are interested in learning more about our model or any of our businesses, please reach out to us through our website: www.evnc.org



Roses For Autism

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I have used Roses For Autism before; they were recommended by my brother-in-law’s fiancee, who lives in Connecticut.  They supplied the flowers and centerpieces for my wife’s birthday party; the flowers were absolutely beautiful and we received many compliments about them.  It is wonderful that such valuable and deserving recognition is given in this CNN story.  Please support them. -Ed

Rose farm helps adults with autism bloom

By Gena Somra, CNN

Rose farm broadens horizons for autistic

Autism group: 88% of U.S. adults with autism are unemployed
Rose farm pairs with Ability Beyond Disability to help autistic adults
Doctor: Working satisfies a desire for “sameness”
“Everybody’s different,” says one worker. “Nothing defines a person except themselves”

Guilford, Connecticut (CNN) — Tom Pinchbeck never dreamed he’d turn his family rose farm into an employment center for people with autism.

In 2008, faced with a sagging U.S. economy and fierce international competition from South American rose growers, Pinchbeck found himself priced out of the market. He had no choice but to do the unthinkable — close the farm started by his great-grandfather.

Shortly afterward, a college friend of Pinchbeck’s, Jim Lyman, approached him with an interesting proposition. Lyman was looking for a way to address the very real problem that many young adults with autism, including his own son, Eli, face: How to transition successfully into adulthood as they grow beyond the cutoff age of built-in state benefits and supports.

“Lyman approached me with the idea of using the greenhouses as a background for vocational therapy for people on the autism spectrum,” Pinchbeck says. “I was still reeling from having to close the place down, and it seemed like an interesting way of putting together a really unique program from the ashes of Pinchbeck’s Farm.”

Now Pinchbeck is working with the group Ability Beyond Disability to put a dent in a staggering statistic: the group says 88% of American adults with autism are unemployed.

“Our program is really designed for people to come into the program, to learn the skills they need and to help place them in their community, help them find a job, hopefully find a career, and really be a productive member of society,” says Joan Volpe, Ability Beyond Disability’s vice president. “That’s really the goal of Roses for Autism is for folks to be a part of a work life that we really take for granted.”

Ethel Bondi possesses a talent for making dried rose wreaths — one of the farm’s best sellers.Helping achieve that goal is Lori Gregan, the farm’s retail manager who’s part cheerleader, part mom and part boss.

“I don’t have the book knowledge on autism,” she says, “But I do have the people knowledge, the instinct.”

She works with employees such as 29-year-old Ethel Bondi, who came into the Roses for Autism program struggling with anything outside her set routine.

“Ethel came, and anytime there was any change, anytime I asked her to do anything at all, it was like, ‘I quit.’ She would get her coat and she was gonna leave,” says Gregan. “I’m like, ‘whoa whoa whoa, why are you quitting?’ She’s like, ‘I can’t do that.’ It was always ‘I can’t.’ Now it’s like, ‘I will. I can. And I am going to.’ ”

Bondi possesses a talent for making dried rose wreaths — one of the farm’s best-sellers.

“They were supposed to be for just Valentine’s Day, but then people wanted them afterward, and they are still wanting them,” she says.

Everybody’s different. Nothing defines a person except themselves.

Will SwartzellHow does that make her feel? “Proud,” Bondi says, smiling tentatively. “They are a big hit.”

“If I show Ethel she can make this wreath, she wins,” says Bondi. “She owns that, and now the next girl that comes in next to her, she can show her, and my job is done. She’s a viable employee. There might be a quirk or two, but that’s what makes us who we are, if all the stones in the river were the same, there would be no song.”

Will Swartzell, a 19-year-old Roses employee with autism, thrives on the uniqueness that makes him who he his. And he hopes success stories like his can help shatter misconceptions that might make employers hesitant to hire people on the autism spectrum.

“We all stereotype,” Swartzell says. “But I think it’s so important not to; to keep your mind open. Everybody’s different. Nothing defines a person except themselves.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by his mother, Sandra.

“I think it’s really important for these kids to have a place where they fit in and contribute,” she says. “They have so many great strengths, and I think people are focused more on their challenges more than their strengths. But a place like Roses can really allow them to celebrate who they are and at the same time learn important job skills that are so necessary for them to be productive members of our society. They are so capable of that. There is no doubt about it.”

Working often makes adults with developmental disorders happier and more satisfied with their lives, says Dr. Max Wiznitzer of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. It gives them a sense of purpose, and they usually do a good job, he says. They’re often very focused.

Will Swartzell, 19, thrives on the uniqueness that makes him who he is.”They follow the rules,” says Wiznitzer. “Autism is that way — one of the diagnostic criteria is the desire for sameness. They’re going to be punctual. They’re going to show up every day. They have a lot of positive behaviors that employers like. It can be very beneficial both for the employer and the employee.”

But there’s somewhat of a downside, says Wiznitzer. They work several hours a day, and “then they go back to where they’re living, and they’re somewhat isolated from everyone else and — what do they do with their leisure time? We have to make sure they have time for the other stuff, too.”

Looking across the retail center, where her employees are hard at work cutting, pruning, designing and packing, Gregan’s voice fills with optimism.

“To see the change in my employees from day one to day 10, there are no words. I can see this going global. There are people who are autistic all over the world. They just need to know how they fit in and we need to give them those tools. ”

With the help of a few charitable grants, Roses for Autism is doing just that — helping young adults with autism fit in, find their strengths and improve their lives.

Pinchbeck’s alliance with Ability Beyond Disability has saved the family farm — turning it into a nonprofit business that produces almost a million flowers per year.

It’s a solution as unique as the workers who helped save the Pinchbeck family legacy, all the while finding their own place to shine.

For more on Roses for Autism, go to www.rosesforautism.com.

Please click on the original story link below to view the video:


A Road To Independence: From Autism Spectrum To Software Tester

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Photograph by Darren Robb/Photonica/Getty Images


Outsourcing to The Autistic Rather Than to India

By on March 27, 2012

Part of the reason autism has captivated Hollywood moviemakers more than other developmental disabilities is that, for all the difficulties it brings those who have it, it also gives some of them the ability to perform uncanny feats of brainpower: effortlessly memorizing train schedules or song lyrics, identifying the day of the week of any date in the past. Even among those who aren’t full-blown savants, many display an impressive ability, even a desire, to immerse themselves in what the rest of us would see as mind-numbingly boring, detail-oriented tasks.

What if we could turn that ability toward things besides memorizing train schedules? It’s not simply an abstract question: The vast majority of those with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism are unemployed. A few companies are trying to do just that, and all in the same sphere: software testing, the epitome of mind-numbing, detail-oriented work. The pioneer was a company called Specialisterne, started in 2004 by a Danish software engineer with an autistic son—it has since created offshoots in Iceland and Scotland. In 2008 a small nonprofit called Aspiritech in Chicago was started to put people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome to work testing smartphone apps.

The newest entrant into the space in the U.S. is a Los Angeles-based software and design firm called Square One. The company has a small pilot program working to design a software-testing training program for people on the autism spectrum. The project grew out of conversations between company co-founder Chad Hahn and his wife, Shannon, who works with the developmentally disabled. Hahn, along with experts his wife led him to, has put together a software-testing curriculum that he’s now in the process of teaching to an inaugural class of three. The course he’s designed relies not on written instructions but on a software tool called iRise to create simulations of the sort of problems the trainees would confront in an actual work setting.

Hahn is also trying to develop a work environment that would be friendly to those on the autism spectrum, for whom the social interactions of a typical workplace can trigger paralyzing anxiety. For some people, Hahn says, that might mean ensuring that there’s a quiet room or a set of headphones they can put on to block out the buzz around them; for others it’s making sure there’s a counselor there to talk to whenever they need it. Hahn says he’s in talks with Warner Bros. and LegalZoom about software-testing contracts.

But what’s most original about Square One’s approach is how resolutely bottom-line-oriented Hahn is. Specialisterne only worked because of generous Danish subsidies for employing the developmentally disabled, and Aspiritech is a nonprofit. But for the time being Hahn is committed to the for-profit route.

A lot of software testing is done overseas by workers in India. The case Hahn makes is that his software testers will work for $15 to $20 an hour—pay comparable to, or even lower than, that of software testers in India, but right here in the U.S. After all, he points out, people with autism don’t have a lot of alternatives—when they do find work, it’s usually bagging groceries or sweeping hospital floors at the minimum wage.

Hahn, in other words, is proposing outsourcing to the developmentally disabled rather than the developing world. Asked whether it might be exploitative to pay people with a disability less than those without one for doing the same work, he says he doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, he says, Indian software testers aren’t exactly sweatshop labor; they make about $25 an hour. And if paying less makes the company able to hire the developmentally disabled in the first place, he doesn’t see a problem with it.

“I haven’t had one parent of an autistic child come to me and say this isn’t going to work,” he says. “They say, ‘This is a way for my child to make more money than they would have made otherwise, and allow them to be more independent.’ They worry, what is my child going to do when I’m gone? And this is kind of a way out.”