Small Business Town Halls Inspire the Community 

Friday, November 15, 2013 View Comments

This post is by Dave Kearon, assistant director of Adult Services for Autism Speaks.

This fall, Autism Speaks has been busy hosting a series of Town Hall meetings in nine different cities across the country. These gatherings are part of “Advancing the Role and Impact of Small Businesses in Employing Adults with Autism,” an Autism Speaks initiative funded by a generous grant from the Ireland Family Foundation. As we approach the 9th and final Town Hall meeting on Monday, November 18, at Fenway Park in Boston, we are thrilled with the level of interest and engagement we have found in the adult autism community – over 1,000 people have participated in our Town Halls this fall!  And at every meeting, both employed and unemployed individuals with autism have inspired us and the audiences with their determination, hope and optimism for the future.

Our goals for this project were simple: first, we aim to increase employment opportunities for all adults with autism in the United States; and second, Autism Speaks is committed to becoming a central resource where employers – both small and large – can share models and best practices, find useful resources to help enhance and grow their own initiatives, and provide support and information to individuals and families, service providers, schools, community partners and committed employers who are hiring adults with autism. Near the end of 2013, we will develop a database on AutismSpeaks.org and another platform where interested parties can share information, learn from one another and grow their networks in order to create greater opportunities for workers with autism.

Employment is a critical component for most adults to build full and productive lives. Individuals living with autism deserve the opportunity to contribute as productive workers in appropriate employment settings – and with appropriate accommodations – and actively improve their quality of life. However, there are simply not enough opportunities today for adults with autism to find and keep meaningful jobs.  National data indicates that the vast majority of adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed, with some estimates ranging to as high as 90%. So Autism Speaks and the Ireland Family Foundation believe that small businesses and entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to respond to a call to action. After all, hiring individuals with autism is good for business and for society at large.

In Miami, a man named Marc William Pulver spoke candidly about what gainful employment has meant to him and how it has empowered and enabled him to live a more independent life. Mr. Pulver, like other adults with autism at the Town Halls, spoke from his heart and was met by rousing applause. He finished his brief speech by declaring, “I feel it's a privilege to be autistic, not an impediment. I have achieved so much since being a child who was told he was mentally disabled, and to get to the point where I am now... There is hope. Don’t give up. Parents, work with your kids, love them and nurture them. It goes a long way.”

Joe Steffy, a young man with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, gave presentations at two of the Town Halls which brought the crowd to its feet. Using a Dynavox, pictures and a video, Joe told the story of a young boy whose future had been predicted by the professionals to be unpromising at best. That young boy, Joe himself, is now the proud business owner of Poppin Joe’s Gourmet Kettle Korn, a self-sustaining micro-enterprise that employs others with and without disabilities as well. At the end of his presentations, Joe provided all of the attendees delicious samples of Kettle Korn.

Time after time, we have heard from our panelists of the strengths and achievements of their employees with autism and consequently the success of their businesses.  Autism Speaks firmly believes that adults with autism represent a tremendous untapped workforce for employers worldwide.  The Small Business Initiative is sparking the interest of many throughout the country, and we hope that the businesses that are highlighted will be replicated or inspire others to employ individuals with autism at their own businesses.  Individuals living with autism deserve the opportunity to contribute as productive workers in appropriate employment settings, paying taxes while improving their quality of life.

Click here to read about the other Town Halls!

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