This fall, Autism Speaks was proud to host a series of Small Business Town Hall meetings in nine cities across the country. These interactive public forums were 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. The urgent need for increased employment options and opportunities for adults with autism was evidenced by the high level of attendance and the active engagement of the participants at the town halls; over 1,000 individuals with autism, family members, small business owners, employment service providers and government agencies participated in the town halls.
Thirteen businesses that successfully employ workers with autism, as well as a few owned by individuals on the spectrum, were featured as panelists over the course of the nine meetings. Many other enterprises that support adults with autism and other developmental disabilities were represented in the audience. Employees from these enterprises displayed their products and networked with participants before and after the town halls.
“This whole series of town halls that we’ve held around the country these last couple of months were meant not only to incentivize small businesses to hire people on the spectrum, but also to educate businesses in general about what kinds of assets and capabilities people on the spectrum can bring to their businesses,” said Liz Feld, president of Autism Speaks. “It’s obvious that it’s a good thing to do and it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also good business. And this is not that complicated – you don’t need a master business plan. As a small business owner or a Mom & Pop shop, this can start right in your own backyard.”
This phase of the Small Business initiative aimed to increase employment opportunities for all adults with autism in the United States by focusing on the innovation and flexibility unique to small businesses and entrepreneurs that enable them to sustainably employ individuals with autism. Autism Speaks is committed to becoming a central resource where employers of any scale can share models and best practices and discover useful resources to help enhance and grow their own ventures. We hope to be a source of support and information for individuals with autism and their families, as well as service providers, schools, community partners and committed employers who are hiring adults with autism. In January of 2014, Autism Speaks will develop a networking database where interested parties can share information, learn from one another and grow their networks in order to create greater opportunities for workers with autism. If you would like to join this database, please send your contact information to Employment@autismspeaks.org.
“This initiative is important because small businesses are the largest employment group in the country,” noted Van Hatchell, managing director of Extraordinary Ventures in Chapel Hill, NC and one of the panelists at each of the Town Hall meetings. “The fastest solution to employ individuals with developmental disabilities is going to be in our local communities, in jobs that highlight the strengths and interests of our population. As we share how our models compete in local markets and how our employees often work better than their neurotypical counterparts, we begin to break down the stereotypes that people have about people with developmental disabilities.”
At each town hall, the panelists and employers in the audience spoke of the strengths and achievements of their employees with autism and the success of their businesses as a result. Autism Speaks firmly believes that adults with autism represent a capable and untapped workforce for employers worldwide. The Small Business town halls highlighted business models that can be replicated or used to inspire other businesses to employ individuals with autism. Individuals living with autism deserve the opportunity to contribute as productive workers in appropriate employment settings, participate as part of their communities and improve their quality of life.
Liz Feld concluded her speech at the final town hall meeting in Boston with the following remarks: “I’m so grateful that Bob and Suzanne Wright, the co-founders of Autism Speaks, and our entire board are behind us on this initiative. As this generation of young kids with autism has grown up to be young adults with autism, the needs and the interests of the adult autism community have become a strategic priority for us. We are very focused not only on employment, but also on housing, community integration and transition issues that are associated with kids who are aging out of school-based services. You are going to hear a lot from us about this over the next couple of years. So this is just the beginning, and thanks to Gregg and Lori Ireland, it is the beginning of something very important.”