Why Entrepreneurship Holds the Key to Solving the Autism Employment Crisis

When my brother Andrew was 22 years old, it became painfully apparent that he might never lead the type of adult life we all hope for: a life full of close relationships, a career he felt valued in and the income he needed to pursue his hobbies. Why? Because he was born with autism.
02/11/2016 10:26 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2016-02-10-1455117117-4843414-ThomasDEri.pngThomas D'Eri is the COO and Co-Founder of Rising Tide Car Wash, an award-winning social enterprise that has designed one of the only financially viable and operationally proven business models to employ individuals with autism. He also recently launched Rising Tide University, which is dedicated to helping nurture this movement. He is a Miami Herald 20Under40 winner and Unreasonable Institute Fellow. 

When my brother Andrew was 22 years old, it became painfully apparent that he might never lead the type of adult life we all hope for: a life full of close relationships, a career he felt valued in and the income he needed to pursue his hobbies. Why? Because he was born with autism.

Andrew and the 80 percent of his peers diagnosed with autism struggle to find employment. This statistic riveted my family. The thought of Andrew rotting away in his bedroom playing video games all day with no friends or sense of purpose propelled us to action.

My father and I founded Rising Tide Car Wash as a means of creating a community for Andrew and showing the world just how capable people with autism really are. Through a few years of hard work and an amazing team of partners, we've built a business that employs 35 individuals with autism -- 80 percent of our staff. Not only is this business creating a community for Andrew, but it's making money and destroying the competition.

Through this journey, we've gotten to know hundreds of individuals with autism. We've discovered what we believe to be the root cause of the autism employment crisis. Our society views autism as a disability that requires sympathy instead of a valuable diversity. We've been taught to feel sorry for people with autism, which creates a really challenging stigma to overcome when looking for work. How can we expect a business owner, who depends on their employees to produce, to hire someone who they think is inferior?

The good news is that there's a group of people can do something about this -- autism entrepreneurs. These changemakers represent the innovators along the adoption curve -- the folks who can build businesses from the ground up around the natural talents of people with autism and create a critical mass of success stories. They will make it easier for the early adopters within existing companies (likely in the industries these entrepreneurs enter) to make a case for harnessing this advantage within their businesses. Only after this tipping point is reached can we expect the mainstream business community to act with any real enthusiasm.

To become an autism entrepreneur, you must start by:
  1. Knowing your community: When you know one person with autism, you only know one person with autism. Keep this in mind when designing a business dedicated to employing this group. Spend time in autism classrooms, with job coaches at employment sites and in social groups to get to know the community you aim to serve and to identify skill sets that could be used as an advantage for a business.
  2. Doing what works: Most entrepreneurs need to innovate a new business model to be successful. As an autism entrepreneur, you need to identify existing business models that work and design a way to employ individuals with autism in them. With an eye towards leveraging existing business models, you will find that autism can be a powerful differentiator to many customers.
  3. Looking beyond the interests of your loved one with autism to find the underlying skillsets: As parents, caregivers and friends, we want our loved ones with autism to be happy. It's easy to become myopically focused on their apparent interests to meet that goal. It's typically not a good idea to go down this road, however, because interests aren't the foundation of a good business -- skills are. My brother always wanted to be a museum curator. He memorized tour scripts, museum layouts and schedules. But that role typically requires an advanced degree that Andrew won't be able to achieve with his intellectual disability. That said, his interest in the museum shows his skills for memorization, attention to detail and love of structured environments -- all attributes we designed Rising Tide around.

People like Dan Selec, Rajesh Anandan, Mark Wafer and Gregg Ireland have already begun to prove that this model will be successful. Thorkil Sonne, Founder of Specialisterne has shown that individuals with Asperger's make excellent software testers. His story has inspired intrapreneurs (early adopters) within companies like SAP, Microsoft and HP to hire people on the spectrum.

This group isn't the only champion of this movement. There's an upwelling of people beginning their entrepreneurial journey simply because they believe the best way to support their loved one with autism is to start a business with them. People like Valerie Herskowitz and Silvia Planas Prats are building businesses right here in South Florida. We want to nurture this movement by providing a road map to build businesses like ours. We firmly believe that the group of dedicated self-advocates, family members and caregivers hold the potential to change the way we view autism.