Social Enterprises as a solution for employment of autistic youth

| December 14, 2016

In his December 13, 2016 Forbes blog post Michael Bernick, former California labor department director gives a good overview of the employment situation for those on the autism spectrum. At Autistry we have been working on employment for our students for many years and know how difficult it is to find good solutions for them. In our experience with the different types of employment situations we conclude that Social Enterprises provide the most robust solution for the largest number of autistic individuals.

Father and son

Bernick identifies three main types of employment opportunities:

1. “Autism at Work” and other targeted hiring and retention efforts by large employers.
Companies such as Microsoft and Salesforce have initiatives to provide employment opportunities in support staff as well as staff for their primary business.

2. Autism-focused businesses.
Also known as Social Enterprises (and in the past “sheltered employment”) these would be businesses formed with the intention of providing employment opportunities.

3. Self-employment and internet-based creative collectives.
These are programs to enable individuals to start their own businesses as well as systems that support individuals marketing their own creations as a way to earn a living.


No small business solutions – yet

Bernick makes no mention of employment at small local businesses and we think he was right to omit them. Small businesses are a large share of the employment picture and their small size can be good for autistic employees. However, we have found it nearly impossible to chisel out a spot in any local business that is both good for the individual and good (profitable) for the local business. The reality is most individuals who need services also need significant support to work. Small businesses can’t afford the required support and there are no programs that provide that kind of support over the multi-year timeframe we find is required.

Unicorns and other legends of long term employment at local businesses

Yes, we know of some people who have had jobs with local businesses, sometimes for many years. On examination these are all very special cases. There is usually continuous family support and/or the personal involvement of a key business owner. When it works, these situations are utopian. But they suffer from being exceedingly fragile. We have had many students come to us after having been ejected from an employment situation that might have been stable for years but could not weather very typical changes: Owners and family members providing support age and die. Businesses change, change owners, or fail. For every one student in a special job at a local business, I have twenty or thirty we cannot place. Without special financial incentives and robust support, we do not see local businesses being able to scale employment in numbers large enough to solve the employment challenge.

The Big Business model

Large employers like Microsoft can and do provide programs supporting employment for autistics. Within this are generally two tiers of employment. On one tier are support jobs like food services, janitorial, office supply and office management and these can be accessible to the most impaired individuals. On the next tier are jobs related to the core business function of the company. These higher level jobs are accessible only to the most talented, least impaired individuals. At Microsoft these would be jobs as programmers with additional support. Our main concern is that these initiatives can survive only as long as the business can sustain them and might be vulnerable to changes in business climate. Another issue is that for the support jobs any migration to higher level jobs within the company can be difficult or impossible.

lauren learning

Self-employment initiatives and crafts marketplaces

The idea that many or most autistic individuals can run their own business and make a living is a beautiful idea that does have any basis in reality. Just because autistics can be bossy, it does not follow that they should be bosses. Just because many might prefer to work alone, it does not follow they should be sole proprietors. Most NTs (NeuroTypicals) are not capable of running their own businesses. Most NTs spend their entire lives as employees of businesses they do not own or run. Even without the added complication of being autistic the ability to be a successful entrepreneur is rare. Individuals capable of running their own business should certainly be supported but like employment at small local businesses, we do not feel this solution scales to the number of individuals who need employment.

The best solution: Social Enterprises

Paraphrasing Churchill: Creating small businesses specifically to provide employment is not a great solution, except when compared to all the other ways that have been tried.

An example of a social enterprise that Autistry Studios could create would be a light manufacturing business making products such as small furniture items out of wood, model kits produced on machines like our laser cutters and 3D printers, and textile products sewn by student/employees. Because our goal is interesting products that provide good employment we can and will migrate through many different product ideas and types. Depending on a student/employee’s ability they could hold any one of many jobs within this manufacturing organization: product design, marketing, sales, production, customer service, … For the most capable employees these jobs can be short term jobs providing training and experience towards independent employment. For the more impaired they can spend as much time as they need growing in skills and experience until they can leave to work independently. For the most impaired this would be a stimulating and productive way for them to spend their time.

We feel Social Enterprises (SEs) are the best and most flexible solution to the employment problem for autistic youth. They can be scaled to employ large numbers of individuals and there is every indication that the number of autistics entering adulthood is growing. Social Enterprises offer support across the spectrum and create meaningful employment for all levels of ability.

Related articles on our work program experiments and experiences:
December 2013 Autistry wins grant for employment program
April 2011 Article: What’s working? Autistry Enterprises for employment





We are parents of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and professionals who chose to immerse ourselves in working with this population. We will often use “autistic” to mean either “symptoms of the diagnosis of autism” or “a person with the diagnosis of autism.” Similarly we will use ASD to mean either “Autism Spectrum Disorder” or “a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder” or “autistic.” One of the authors (Daniel) has Asperger’s Syndrome and we will often use “Aspergers” or “aspie” to refer to individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. We often refer to our “clients” as “students” and use the terms interchangeably.

Personal Ownership/Parents Transition

| February 10, 2014

ConnorSo I have not written in this blog for some time and I apologize. My intent was to do this more regularly but perhaps monthly is a better goal.

A parent forwarded another great transition blog written by Laura Shumaker. What was of interest is that she has a son who is now 20 and comments on the same things. There is a lot of focus on early intervention. We need to create the opportunities for our young adults. This means that we must seek out employers, internships and volunteer opportunities. We must create a stronger circle of resources for our young adults.

The topics are very similar because as we transition our kids we are all consumed with the same concerns. I often say if I could live forever I would not be as worried about my son’s future. I would not care if he lived at home but that is not the case. My focus is getting him employed and into a supported living situation. He is 21 years old this year but our goal continues to be to transition him gradually and by age 25. He is the one that told us 25 and we are trying to follow his lead while gently guiding him.

ConnorConnor has been attending a county program since finishing up high school. This is a program that stresses very little academics and has a lot of down time. We decided to have Connor attend as he needed a place where he would be engaged and around others his age. There was also a very structured transportation element that would facilitate independence in taking the bus. We had only hoped to have Connor attend for a year as we worked to figure out other post high school options. He is now in his second year and really thriving. What has happened is Connor has taken complete ownership for this program. He knows on what days he needs to bring lunch and makes his own without any involvement from us. On the days he goes to Safeway he checks with his dad about what he should purchase. Connor will also buy things that he needs like mouthwash or toothpaste. He monitors this on his own. He gets ready in the morning on his own and is always ready when the taxi arrives. We in fact do not need to be home. He is also taking the bus on his own. He is given money at the beginning of the week and has to budget for the week to cover lunches, bus fare and trips to Safeway. I share this as sometimes as parents we walk away from some programs without considering the long term impact. I have actually never visited this class when in session as I knew I would be looking for something else. Connor is almost 21 and he needs to make his own choices and also be responsible for his activities. We have really stepped back and we are the ones who are also transitioning.

Connor cutting plywoodConnor has 3 different part time jobs/internships including the Autistry Model Employment Program. He works hard at these jobs and we are hopeful that this will be a foundation for future employment as he has acquired great skills and understands better the work environment. We await word from the Department of Rehabilitation as we hope to transfer Connor to paying jobs. I will blog about that journey. We still have not accessed GGRC but will be soon.

* For more information on Transition and to meet other community leaders, service providers, and parents join us at the Marin Autism Collaborative Annual Meeting, Saturday, March 8th, 9am – Noon at Marin Office of Education, 1111 Las Galinas Ave, San Rafael. There will also be a panel of young adults with autism speaking about their transition and work place experiences.

Help others see my strengths/ Time Magazine

| October 23, 2013

I just finished reading the article in Time Magazine “What’s Right with the Autistic Mind”.  I really appreciated this article which supports the need to focus in on strengths rather than deficits.  I encourage others to read this article and share with friends as it does offer insight into a different way of thinking. My brother who is a scientist  and has a doctorate in bio physics (and is not on the spectrum) once commented that  curing autism was not the right approach as the mind of a person with autism is often times a gift into a different way to think and solve problems. He said this understanding that his nephew needed intense intervention. My brother had an amazing connection to Connor and was able to understand how he processed information so could elicit pretty profound thinking from him.

Connor in hard hatThe entire educational experience for parents as well as children with special needs is usually discussing what they are unable to do rather than recognizing the strengths and building on those. In a true transition plan this is exactly what should be done; build on skills to assist with employment options or other post high school experiences. My younger son asked me why I work so hard on keeping Connor engaged and I told him because we need to teach him how to exist in this world. I also explained that the best approach is to integrate his way of thinking and adapt this to our world in order for him to someday be independent. We also need to do our best at educating others so they can appreciate his strengths and those of many adults on the spectrum.   My son asked me many other questions and I later learned that he was writing an essay titled, How to live with my Brother.  He asked me to read the paper and my initial impression was that this was not truly Connor but an exaggeration to have more of an impact on the reader.  I then thought about this more and concluded that most of what he had described was really pretty accurate but yet not how I saw Connor. My younger son knows his brother well and they are very close and I respected his perspective.  This got me thinking about how others saw my son and what I could do to better represent his skills and strengths. This is not just true of my son but all these young adolescents. What can we do so others can appreciate them for who they are and what skills they are able to contribute?  

looking downAs part a member of the Alternative Programming Advisory Committee at Tamalpais Union High District we discussed the essentials for student success. Here are some of the characteristics that were discussed and I am interested to hear if there are others that we may have missed that relate to our students: ability to advocate, emotional intelligence, basic /core academic skills, critical thinking skills, personal financial management, personal expression/creativity, teamwork, ability to see own potential, self-confidence, ability to assess impact actions have on yourself and others, ownership to learning.

I have contacted several different people to see if they are willing to help me create a support network for internships.  More to follow…



| June 30, 2013

I am asked frequently about my choices and decisions about my son ( referred to as C in this blog) who is now approaching 20.  I do not want this blog to be about him but more about what I have learned that might help others as they start to think about post high school options.  I will speak about C  in this first blog but will then transition to just general topics on transition.

Another goal of this blog is to follow C’s development and growth as a participant in Autistry Model Employment Program. Focus will not so much be on C but more specific to the goals of the program and the important skills that are developed.

Connor cutting plywoodI always believed that a diploma was the most important goal for him. He was on that track until at 17 I realized that he would be better served with school services until he reaches 21. I truly believed that a diploma would give him more credibility and recognition and provide more options. In reality C will always need support.  A diploma would not give him access to what he really would need to become independent. While we can get focused on cognitive abilities there are many things to truly consider when evaluating options post high school. Pushing further academics was also creating a lot of anxiety which interfered with overall growth for C.  There is a lot to  consider as well with services such as supplemental social security, golden gate regional center and how to ensure that our kids get the right support to move toward independence

043 Although C is 20 I am not so focused on his chronological age as he is still developing and may reach milestones at different times. Our goal is to work toward employment and Independent living. He changes every year and I have always tried to emphasize this to other families when considering options for their own kids.  Unfortunately we are forced to make many decisions when they reach 18 because that is the legal age that they are considered adults.

Conservatorship, partial conservatorship are definitely things to start considering long before our kids turn 18.  C is very self aware of what he can and cannot do and knows that he needs assistance.  You need to determine whether or not your son or daughter’s decision making at 18 is safe and whether they will involve you or be susceptible to others. I can offer more on this topic at a later date.

Ian and Connor building the trailerTransitions are as much about the family as about the child. As parents we need to work on fostering independence.  This does mean taking safe risks . For C this is allowing him to walk home from local venues, riding the bus  and purchasing items at a store on his own.  He is also letting us know that he “knows what he is doing” and we are working on listening and allowing him to make these decisions. For so long he did what we all asked him to do as we structured his day and had him learn what we knew was important for him. Now we are allowing him to tell us more about who he wants to be  which means not always wanting to please us or others when given a choice.

So this is my first entry on this blog.  I will post weekly and each blog will cover a different topic.

Autistry Model Employment Program has started and is going really well.  The 2 employees are really understanding collaboration and how important it is to work as a team.

Pacific Sun article on education

| August 19, 2012

Autistry Studios is featured in this week’s edition of the Pacific Sun (Aug. 17, 2012). Jordan Rosenfeld writes about the effect of changes to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that will place Asperger’s into the more general category of Autism Spectrum Disorder. No one is certain exactly how this new categorization will impact funding. Currently most regional centers do not financially support individuals with Asperger’s.

All the more reason for us to concentrate on creating employment opportunities for teens and adults with ASD!

Article: What’s working? Autistry Enterprises for employment

| April 30, 2011

by Dan Swearingen and Janet Lawson, MFT

The core mission of Autistry Studios is supporting the transition of ASD youth to whatever level of adult independence each individual is capable of achieving. Our Core Workshops and our new Drama Workshops prepare students for adult life by exercising and growing executive skills while building confidence and mental resiliency. These skills combined support real time decision-making and the ability to act on decisions – the abilities needed to successfully work and create.

The Thursday gang Our existing Core Workshops include a range of activities that could be characterized as going from “play” to “playful work.” Last year, as Autistry grew to including a growing adult student body we felt a need for more direct employment training: An employment program which could be thought of as picking up from “playful work” and transitioning into “realistic work.”

Importance of Work

Alex and IanMeaningful work is how we establish our identity, maintain our independence, and construct a real relationship with our community. Without appropriate opportunities to work our students are denied independence, denied an adult identity, and denied a real place in our community.

Building the ability to work is fundamental to fulfilling our mission supporting transition for ASD youth.

Our programs have always been driven by the needs of the students with whom we work. Our students today need initial work experience in safe situations where they can explore and learn initial job skills, practice social skills, and cultivate their work ethic.

Initial experiments

Our first experience providing work was to have students work extra hours doing chores around our workshop areas. This was a gentle extension of their normal workshop schedule. This succeeded to some extent but highlighted requirements a more robust program would need to meet:

  • Increased structure – more work hours per week.
  • A mix of routine: repeated tasks in which deep competency can be built up as well as unique tasks exercising problem solving skills.
  • Measured amounts of social interaction appropriate to the employee’s social skills.
  • Work objectives that are real and meaningful to the employees.

Our new employment programs for Q3-Q4 2011

Based on the lessons we have learned and to the extent that funding permits, we will be rolling out several internal direct employment businesses to which Autistry students would be eligible to apply starting summer of 2011.

In the past these internal businesses would have been called sheltered work programs but the current trend is to call programs like these Social Enterprises. This is a wide ranging term for any program that applies capitalistic strategies to achieving philanthropic goals. In our usage we will be calling these new Autistry Studios employment projects Autistry Enterprises.

The goal of the Autistry Enterprises is to set up a cluster of internal businesses that feed business to each other as well as outside businesses and customers much as a Japanese keiretsu (network of companies) functions.

Autistry Publishing

A couple of our students are in the process of writing books which will be published by Autistry Studios. In addition to the direct processes of producing content, digital textblock, illustrations, and actually printing books we will be handling ISBN registration and setting up sales and delivery channels.

This Autistry enterprise will feed business into Autistry IT (website, e-commerce, technical support) and Autistry Figures (figure from the books) – both described below.


Autistry Railroad

Foothill Station - FinallyThe Autistry RR will produce model structure kits in cut-and-fold, cast plaster, cast resin, and eventually laser-cut wood and plastic formats. This company will employ designers working on CAD systems, technical writers/illustrators making instruction material, workers producing and packaging kit materials while maintaining inventory, and workers handling and fulfilling orders.

This Autistry enterprise will feed business into Autistry Publishing (printed materials, packaging) and Autistry IT (website, e-commerce, technical support).

Autistry Figures

Picture 063Autistry Figures will produce customized figures in many formats. Some will be hand painted figures available commercially; others will be complete custom creations.

This Autistry enterprise will feed business into Autistry Publishing (printed materials, packaging) and Autistry IT (website, e-commerce, technical support).

Autistry IT

Adam booting his PC build projectAutistry IT will provide computer hardware and software support to Autistry Studios and Autistry Enterprises. It will produce and manage websites for all the Autistry activities including e-commerce capabilities.

Next Steps

We have the resources to start the Autistry Enterprises but they will need significant direct family support to grow to a point where they can provide paid employment.

[Updated 9/2/2013]

The Autistry Employment Program was launched as the Autistry Model Employment Program in June 2013.

Hands on Banking: Financial life skills for us and our children

| November 9, 2009

HandsOnBankingPam Erwin gave us a great pointer to Wells Fargo’s Hands on Banking program which provides instructional resources and online classes in financial skills.

Courses are available in English and Spanish and four grades: Kids, Teens, Young Adults, and Adults. We are going to be drawing on these lessons and the great instructor guides (available as pdfs) to add a financial skills component to the transition programs we offer.

We would welcome any feedback about this program or other programs you have heard of.

Hire Autistics – Hire Aspies

| September 23, 2009

For many people on the ASD spectrum entering adulthood, finding appropriate gainful employment is a challenge.

Picture 006

This is unfortunate because people with ASD have skills that can be profitable for an employer. Our experience in Autistry Studios has been that there is an astounding range in skills and interests in the people we work with so generalities always have exceptions but there are some common threads that we agree with:


  • good memory for details.
  • ability to focus on a particular task for extended periods of time.
  • comfort with structured tasks and situations.


  • poor communication skills.
  • poor social skills.
  • discomfort with rapidly changing dynamic situations.

Again, these are very broad generalizations. Your mileage may vary.

I’ve worked my whole professional career with folks like this except we called them “software engineers,” “digital artists,” or “QA testers.” If this is so, why such a gap between the people I work with and people with ASD having trouble getting work?

The problem is that people who have been assessed to be on the ASD spectrum got there because their particular mix of strengths and weaknesses is acute enough that they encounter failure to perform well in “normal” circumstances.

What it takes to hire austistics and aspies is some assistance in the job seeking process and appropriate job assignments and delegation.

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Appropriate jobs and their structure

I’m going to discuss the “appropriate job assignments and delegation” part first because there are some concrete examples handy.

This month’s Wired magazine has a short piece Thorkil Sonne: Recruit Autistics about Thorkil Sonne’s company Specialisterne, a QA testing company Thorkil started to take advantage of the strengths of ASD workers. Here’s another article about Thorkil’s company at the Harvard business Review.

Thorkil’s business (a for-profit company) has a structured training process and takes time making sure each employee is in the right role and that their points of contact within the business and with customers are well managed.

In my business, while we do not overtly seek to hire people with ASD, we know that many of our employees prefer what we call “individual contributor” roles, small teams, a quiet workplace, and well defined tasks. As a manager I know that I will get the best work (and therefore best profit) if I take care in how people are managed. Internal business communication is largely handled by people who have stronger communication skills. We call them “Tech Leads” if they are also programmers and we call them “Producers” or “Project managers” if they are less technical. The Producers handle the bulk of the actual interaction with customers and the programmers by far prefer it that way.

I think these are models that could work in other kinds of workplaces.

The job seeking process.

Find a job, interview for the job, get the job.

Easy, right?

Actually, practically everyone knows this is a hard process. For people with ASD there are particular difficulties.

To find a job you need to hear about a job or read a job listing, imagine whether you could do the job and imagine whether you’d like doing that job. This is precisely the kind of unstructured imaginative creativity people with ASD can find very difficult.

To interview for a job you need to successfully put on a social performance – for a stranger. This part in itself is very stressful and can be a challenge. In the course of the interview you need to hear the questions the interviewer asks and deliver answers that simultaneously are: a) what the interviewer wants to hear; b)  cast a favorable light on you the candidate; c) truthful. This difficult communication challenge is beyond most people who have an ASD diagnosis unless the employer is incredibly accommodating.

I think a solution to the job seeking difficulties is to do something similar to what seems to work in the workplace: matching technical people with “people-skill” people. We could call these people “Recruiters.” By this I mean that a recruiting company that specializes in placement of people with ASD might be a good model to address this problem.

One of the recruiting firms I work with today meets with every candidate and they often escort the candidates to our office on interview days. In the event of a hire they escort the new employee to their first day of work. What I am proposing for ASD folks is that the recruiters stay with the candidate deeper into the process.

This needs some cooperation from the hiring firm but as an employer, if a placement firm consistently brings me good candidates — and even in tough economic times like now good software engineer candidates are scarce — I’m willing to be a bit more flexible.

Practical Next Steps

One of our driving principals at Autistry Studios is that our students and their parents teach us what is needed. We have initially focused on getting our kids ready for life, college, and work. We are increasingly feeling the push to extend our work into helping our students get work and successfully stay at work.

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PowerPoint deck from our Autism Resource Fair presentation

| September 12, 2009

I’m beat! The presentation and the Resource Fair went very well. I’ll post more about the fair and our presentation later but we had some requests for a copy of the slides we used.

Here it is in PDF (Acrobat Reader): Preparing our Teens to Work

Autism Resource Fair

Preparing our Teens to Work presentation this weekend, September 12

| September 11, 2009

Janet and I are presenting a mini workshop “Preparing our Teens to Work” this weekend at the CONNECTING PEOPLE TO RESOURCES resource fair tomorrow at Dominican University in San Rafael.

Besides the mini workshop we will be manning a table displaying some student projects and information about Autistry Studios. Several Autistry Studios parents and students have volunteered to man the table when Janet and I can’t be there.

Hope to see you there and we’ll take lots of pictures and post a report later this weekend.