Connecting Autism with Entrepreneurial Thinking

As a special education teacher working with students with autism in the Philadelphia School District, I feel confident in my ability to provide instruction and help my students develop the skills they need. But two years ago, I ventured into the world of business–one I didn’t know at all.

So when I stood in front of the judges at a grant competition held by Philadelphia’s Corzo Center at the University of the Arts in the spring of 2011, I felt intimidated. I already had made several conference presentations on my work and frequently conducted teacher training in using technologies to support students with autism. As a teacher, I had all the language I needed for education, cognition, and behavior. But I had none for business.

However, I had a vision for a project–which became my company, Autism Expressed–that would take my methods of teaching digital literacy to students with cognitive disabilities like autism to a wider audience. I was ready to execute it.

I began my pitch to the Corzo panel describing the problem I had identified as a teacher working with adolescents with autism.

Digital skills are an essential part of communication and socialization. The lack of access to these skills is creating a critical barrier for this very large and growing population of students with autism. It is limiting the extent to which they can participate in today’s technology-driven society and economy.

I went on to tell the six-person panel, that there was no curriculum, therapy, or vocational program teaching digital literacy with a design appropriate for the unique educational needs of the adolescent with autism. I wanted to build the first online learning system that made digital literacy accessible to students with autism. The goal is to give students the skills to pursue a transition to getting a job and independent living.

While I am not unlike the millions of parents, therapists, and educators who advocate for students with autism, my company was born out of my experiences as a high school autistic support classroom teacher. I have a bachelor’s degree in digital media from the University of the Arts and had been using it with my master’s degree research in autism education to help my students develop technology skills like using e-mail, and logging on to Web sites. As a result, I led my classroom to win third place in Philadelphia’s Regional Computer Fair competition.

Despite my struggles in the business realm, I was able to convince enough people that I knew what I was talking about. I was awarded my first $10,000 grant to carry out my vision.

I set out to execute my idea to start a company that would bridge the gap in services for individuals with autism. Even though I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to accomplish during my Corzo presentation, I was naive to what it would actually take to start a business. You just don’t know what it is that you don’t know.

Around the same time that I was awarded the grant money, I was invited to participate in the GoodCompany Group incubator for startup businesses. I participated in workshops and discussions to develop domain knowledge and skills in the art of entrepreneurship. But I was intimidated by the group of impressive participants that summer. Many already had, or were working toward, their MBAs and seemed leagues ahead of me when it came to understanding concepts of business. I tried to take in what I could while I attempted to balance my focus on both what GCG was teaching and simultaneously developing my product with the grant money.

From all this, Autism Expressed was officially conceived.

Today, Autism Expressed is an online, interactive learning system providing students with lessons in digital literacy, and safe and productive online use. At the same time, the program helps students’ communication skills, and improves task and time management and transition planning. Autism Expressed teaches skills incrementally, using video animation and simulated learning environments. The program begins with developing basic Internet concepts and skills like using e-mail. Students work to develop skills at their own pace, eventually moving towards more advanced skills where they begin professional training with certifications.

What followed in those months of development were cycles of excitement, frustration, self‐doubt, confidence, a sense of achievement, fear and above all, stress. On my list of struggles, one of the hardest was managing people. Communicating, re‐communicating, alignment, realignment, expectations, deadlines. I had to continually be the force that worked to keep things moving forward.

The learning curve has been immense to say the least, and there are many things I might have addressed differently if I was doing it all over again. In many ways, this experience has been like that of the students I work with. Like them, I am learning to navigate unfamiliar situations, without the direct and explicit direction one needs in foreign circumstances. I dealt with anxiety that disrupted my thinking and confidence in my decision-making.

But using the same lesson I teach all of my students, I have found a way to persevere. I now feel confident that I will succeed, while recognizing that this is a process. The more I come to understand my students, their struggle and their process, the more I grow to understand my own.

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