April is World Autism Month and despite the fact that the numbers of cases of autism that are diagnosed have grown, and the increase in public exposure for people with autism, many people are still only minimally aware of the ways in which people with autism live their lives. One of the reasons for misunderstanding about the disorder is that it presents itself in a wide variety of ways and for this reason, in 2013, the decision was made by the American Psychiatric Association to merge what had been four distinct diagnoses under the single umbrella term ‘autism spectrum.’
With increasing study and recognition has also come a growing awareness of the possibilities for assisting children with autism to live up to their full potential, something of vital importance as the CDC estimates that approximately 1 in 42 boys and 1 in every 189 girls fall somewhere on the spectrum. A move to integrate children with autism directly into the mainstream classroom combined with some high profile people, such as Leonel Messi who has Asperger syndrome, demonstrating that people with autism are capable of amazing things, and in general the move toward supporting children with autism is becoming more commonplace.
Each year around 50,000 teenagers with autism become adults, thereby losing the school-based services that were provided, and finding themselves in a vacuum. Many of these new adults are high functioning people with a strong desire to continue to be part of the broader society. Unfortunately, an area that has not yet seen the attention that it needs is the creation of services to support those children as they move into adulthood. One part of being an adult is finding gainful employment, but adults with autism are less likely to find employment than those with many other types of developmental disabilities. The reasons for this interested Anne Roux, a research scientist at the AJ Drexel Austism Institute in Philadelphia, as she explained in an interview with NPR:
“When we learned that last year – that about 40 percent of people [on the autism spectrum] were never getting employment or continuing their education – we wondered, ‘Why is that, and what happens to them?'”
The study that was conducted revealed that there were strong indications that a lack of resources designed to help adults was a weighty factor in this unemployment experience. It is both a matter of supporting people with autism as they try to enter the workplace and also educating the employer as to the unique and beneficial aspects of workers with autism. These types of education and support programs are beginning to make headway for employees and employers alike. One company, however, stumbled across the advantageous connection almost by accident.
Buildpl8, a New Jersey-based company founded by Gerry Libertelli, is an additive manufacturing factory that works with a wide variety of customers to produce runs of items on demand. One day, while experimenting with different 3D printers, he decided to work with a model of a fidget ring, a kind of ring designed to allow its user to turn it and thereby refocus some of their energy, to run his tests. After he had produced the piece, he showed it to Jessica Zufall, the CEO of Special Citizens, an organization dedicated to helping people with autism become successful members of the workforce. It was then that Libertelli realized that his company might not just produce things that help the people who Special Citizens works to assist, but actually be able to employ some of people for whom they advocate.
Thus was born the Shopify store for The Calmring and its special management team consisting of people with autism who are supported by Special Citizens. But Libertelli quickly recognized that there were ways to expand the Shopify store to include a line of products developed to help people with autism, all while creating much-needed employment opportunities. As he explained:
The key to expanding employment opportunities in 3D printing for adults with autism is the recognition of the set of skills that they may bring and education on the part of the employers as to how to recognize the potential connections in ways that a typical job interview might not have demonstrated and the understanding that these are actual jobs, not charitable burdens. The repetitive behaviors, challenges with social skills, and unique communication skills may make it difficult for employers to see the attention to detail, intense focus, or facility with numbers and patterns that make excellent employees, especially in a technology-oriented, precision-driven field like 3D printing. And Zufall sees this intersection between 3D printing and growth in employment opportunities as just the beginning:
“Calmring is going to be one of many products produced by buildpl8, we anticipate it will be part of a collection we call ‘Positools,’ a site dedicated to items for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities. Being able to offer employment opportunities to people Special Citizens supports has been an added bonus to this project and I am excited to be offering a real life job experience to this group of talented people.”
“Having the ability to pilot the Calmring has been very exciting for our organization. The fact that this pilot has resulted in employment opportunities for people we support is extraordinary and we are so excited to expand the skill sets for each person so they may continue to move on to more competitive employment.”
While the end goal may seem distant, the employment provided by buildpl8 has provided a meaningful experience for a small group of people and an exciting boost to morale to those who spend so much of their time advocating for adults with autism, whether as members of an organization like Special Citizens or for individual advocates in families and communities. Discuss in the Autism forum at 3DPB.com.