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Symposium Explores Creating Opportunities for Adults With Autism

Researchers, business owners, and families gathered at Northwestern University on March 12 to share success stories about, and to build awareness of, autism. It was the first of what organizers hope is an annual event that will open doors to employment opportunities that are too often slammed shut.

The Autism Speaks Midwest Employee Symposium at the Norris Center brought together about 150 people for a day-long discussion of autism and the challenges adults with autism face in finding employment.

One of the event’s cochairs, Denise Boggs Eisenhauer, said she walked out of the event feeling “inspired” but also recognized that there’s so much more to do.

Eisenhauer directs Northwestern’s Center for Audiology, Speech, Language and Learning (NUCASSL), which diagnoses and treats young children and adults with communication disorders. She said it’s important for clinicians to be thinking as broadly as possible about the lifespan of these individuals on the autism spectrum.

“Honestly, we do an amazing job of providing evidence-based evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” she said. “But after the symposium, I recognized we as providers have to do more than just say we’re the best at treating the disorder of autism. Our responsibility lies also in building community awareness and acceptance of differences that people with ASD may present to the world”.   

“We need to determine how we use the skillset that we have as clinicians to help at the other end, to help businesses to understand and develop so that our patients who are 3 and 4 years old now coming through the clinic are going to be able to walk into a job when they’re 18, 19, and 20 and be hired” she added.

Part of that, Eisenhauer said, is to create awareness in the community and to help businesses learn what they can do to provide jobs to these individuals

“Being (at the symposium) and feeling that energy was so inspiring, because it motivated all clinicians in the room to start working on the community awareness piece too,” she said.

It is estimated that 85 percent of adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. The Autism Speaks event featured panel discussions with several employers who have successfully hired and built businesses utilizing the skills of workers with autism.

The second part of the symposium featured a “Pitch Fest” during which small business owners vied for a first prize of $3,500 by pitching ideas for creating employment opportunities for adults with autism. Jan Pilarski and her son Chris Tidmarsh won for their proposal about expanding their Green Bridge Growers (GBG) business.

Green Bridge is a hydroponic farming operation that was founded two-and-a-half years ago by Pilarski and Tidmarsh as a way to provide quality jobs for young adults with autism. They started with a 400-square-foot greenhouse but are now in construction on two larger greenhouses – 2,200 square feet each – that will create jobs for as many as eight more adults with autism.

“My oldest son is a young adult on the autism spectrum,” Pilarski said. “He graduated from Hope College and has always been interested in science and environmental studies. … (But) a stint in the traditional workplace didn’t work out for him, so we wanted to explore something that was more entrepreneurial.

“He had already been very interested in what he saw in college of organic farming, so for us (Green Bridge Growers) was an outgrowth of his own interests and passions.”

Pilarski said the Autism Speaks event helps create more awareness inside and outside the autism community.

“It’s a good moment to realize this is a growing movement in the business-education field,” she said. “It comes at a really good time for those of us who want to start a business with a social purpose.

“People say, ‘What kind of a difference can you make?’ because the problem is so big. But it’s planting seeds – this is a very viable type of employment; entrepreneurial employment – and there are any number of businesses that could be started given an autistic individual’s passion or interests. So it kind of turns the idea of employment on its head so people can look at it differently.”

The Autism Speaks Midwest Employment Symposium was co-sponsored by Northwestern’s Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning (NUCASLL) and the Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Lab in the Roxellyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

In recognition of World Autism Awareness Day, Northwestern’s 100-foot clock tower, which stands in the middle of the Rebecca Crown Center, will glow blue on April 2. 

By Mark Wollemann