THE BLOG
09/06/2013 04:26 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

Helping Adults With Autism Find Meaning: Roses for Autism

2013-09-05-photo11.jpgThere are countless great causes out there, but there is one in particular that has touched my heart, for personal reasons: Roses for Autism. As the father of a teenage son with autism, I worry a great deal about his future as an adult and how my wife and I can help him be as independent as possible. Roses for Autism was introduced to me a few years ago by a friend who knew about their incredible programs for training and employing adults on the autism spectrum. From that moment I was hooked and have done everything I can to promote their revolutionary and much needed approach to training our fellow adult citizens with autism. In case you were not aware, autism currently affects one in 88 children.

I recently had an opportunity to interview Tom Fanning, the President and CEO of Ability Beyond Disability, which is the parent organization of Roses for Autism. He has worked tirelessly to create an organization devoted to developing creative strategies and effective services that enable people with disabilities to participate fully in their communities and live a life of independence

Tom, thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule for this interview. Can you tell me about the origins of Roses for Autism?

"Started in 2009, Roses for Autism is a social enterprise (nonprofit mission-aligned business) devoted to helping people with autism spectrum Differences learn the essential skills required to achieve meaningful employment and personal success. The idea came from the father of a child on the spectrum, who wanted more for his son after he aged out of traditional education within the school system. He believed his son could attain employment if he was provided the right training and support. This man partnered with a lifelong friend who owned the last family operated rose farm in New England, and together with Ability Beyond Disability, they created Roses For Autism.

Today, Roses for Autism provides opportunities for employment and post-secondary education for individuals on the autism spectrum and others with similar presentations. We are a resource to families, schools, and employers."

What are some of the changes you have seen in the adults on the autism spectrum working at the farm?

"There have been amazing changes in the confidence levels of many of the adults that work at Roses For Autism. While here, they have learned how to be part of a team, utilize the transferable skills they have been taught, advocate for themselves and even mentor others who are just starting in their career paths. Each individual recognizes that their contribution is essential to the success of the entire operation.

We have also witnessed increased independence in other aspects of their lives which we believe is due to the personal growth and success that they have achieved here. Some of our employees have obtained driver's licenses, moved into their own apartments, pursued college level education and obtained secure, permanent employment in careers of their choice."

What has surprised you and the leadership team of Roses for Autism about the impact on employees and their families?

"As children mature into adulthood and begin to create lives of their own, parents are challenged to hold simultaneously to their child's need for nurture with his or her need for autonomy. We have witnessed this same phenomenon occur with the families of employees who have gained confidence and independence in their careers. These amazing families must learn how to trust in their loved one's growth, while continuing to offer the necessary support, as they find the unique balance that works for their family."

What have been the biggest challenges for you and your team?

"One of the biggest challenges Roses For Autism encountered was solidifying our niche within the autism community as a viable career training program that provides services tailored for individuals on the autism spectrum, and that offers a variety of opportunities beyond agricultural careers. Roses For Autism was also challenged to create a clear and cohesive way to market our mission and informing the public that our mission goes beyond growing roses... We are invested in growing futures for the people we serve."

Do you think Roses for Autism is unique in the opportunity it offers to adults on the autism spectrum? Can your organization's success be duplicated elsewhere? Would you ever expand?

"Roses for Autism is a model integrated business creating high impact social change. We directly employ individuals with Autism and other disabilities in key areas of our business including growing operations, information technology, e-commerce, retail sales, etc. We rely upon the contributions of all employees to make our business successful. In addition, our secondary transition and employment service assists individuals with discovering their unique strengths and learning the necessary professional skills to acquire and maintain a job in the workforce. Our innovative approach to education incorporates individualized learning with real work opportunities as we pursue our goals of employment success and lifelong independence for the people who work here.

Our vision is that Roses for Autism will serve as the flagship for a replicable autism transition and employment model that can be duplicated in a variety of business environments. Roses For Autism is unique in the opportunities we offer to individuals on the autism spectrum. We hope to expand our model to other businesses and geographic regions."

What do you want the consumers who buy the beautiful flowers from your organization to know about the farm? What are they really supporting?

"The purchase of flowers, and all donations, support Roses For Autism's secondary transition and employment services. We strive to reduce the staggering unemployment rate of individuals with Autism and help them achieve meaningful employment in the community, independence and personal success."

If this great cause interests you, check out their website at RosesforAutism.com.

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