Entrepreneurship on the Spectrum

Many young people living on the autism spectrum face long term unemployment after graduation, even more than individuals with other intellectual or developmental disabilities. This further inhibits their ability to become independent adults. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Small Business Committee met to discuss this issue and to hear stories from individuals about why it is important that individuals with disabilities be given more opportunities to become entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship promotes and enhances economic independence for all people, but it may mean even more to those living on the autism spectrum.

Living on the Spectrum

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in 68 children in the United States have some form of autism. Current programs and services are woefully unprepared to meet the needs of this growing population.

Paul Shattuck is an associate professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health. His research focuses on understanding the services geared towards young people with autism as they transition out of high school into adulthood. He points to the changing economic landscape in the United States as reason why people with autism find it so difficult to find sustainable work placement after leaving school. “Starting in the early to mid-1970s, there's been a historic shift in the balance of jobs in the manufacturing sector to the service sector. And those types of jobs, which require lots of social interaction, are exactly the types of jobs that people with autism have difficulty with.”1 Most facilities do not have the time or resources to accommodate the special needs of a person with autism, often excluding those living on the spectrum from equal opportunities to gain economic independence.

Independence through Entrepreneurship

Across the country there are organizations seeking to promote economic independence among individuals with disabilities. Christine Denny is one of the founding directors of Extraordinary Ventures, a North Carolina based organization that trains and employs people with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities. It has always been especially difficult for people who are severely impacted by their disabilities to find any kind of real work. That's why one of our primary goals was, and still is, to include the full spectrum of developmental disabilities in our workforce.

Extraordinary Ventures promotes economic independence through entrepreneurship. Individuals with disabilities are hired and trained to run businesses themselves, some of which include a laundry service, handmade products, and animal care. Unlike many other programs that seek to merely meet the basic needs of a person with disabilities, the mission of Extraordinary Ventures is to leverage the entrepreneurial capabilities of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Entrepreneurship provides a unique opportunity to people with autism wishing to become more economically independent. By capitalizing on their strengths, those with autism can successfully own and operate their own startup firms. And while levels of personal independence will vary between them, people living on the spectrum can learn skills that will better aide them in navigating and controlling their own lives.

1. Young Adults With Autism More Likely To Be Unemployed, Isolated
2. For Some with Autism, Entrepreneurship Is the Answer

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Austin Strassle is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri – Kansas City and current Intern with the Research & Policy Department at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.