Economic Self-Sufficiency and the Autistic Community

On Monday November 29, my fiancé and I attended Ari Ne’eman’s talk at Ohio State University. The talk was entitled “Neurodiversity and the College Campus”. However, the talk seemed to introduce the topic of neurodiversity by first presenting what he called the “medical” model of disability (which looks at fixing or removing the disability) and then addressing the problem with Autism Speaks and similar organizations, which have been observed to be pro-cure and thus part of the causation-and-cure aspect of the public conversation about autism. Against the medical model, non-profit organizations addressing autism from a cause-and-cure standpoint, and some of the parents and professionals involved with autism he contrasted the idea of neurodiversity, the self-advocacy movement, and the “social” model of disability (which focuses on what it deems to be equal access for disabled people).

This was the first time I have attended a public talk about autism, neurodiversity, or any related issues and as my fiancé and I listened, some thoughts and questions came into my mind. One of these was the question of economic self-sufficiency for the autistic community.

First, I need to share an important observation about the nature of the major players in the public autism about conversation. It seems to me that the two most vocal camps in this conversation are: 1) the causation-and-cure focused individuals and organizations, and 2) those who believe in neurodiversity and assert that autism is a naturally occurring neurological difference which is part of the individual’s makeup and cannot be separated from him or her. In each of these camps, you have organizations treating autism as a tragic disease and you have organizations addressing autism from a legal standpoint and discussing issues such as equal access to education and employment.

And in both camps, you have charitable or non-profit organizations. Autism Speaks is probably the most visible of the causation-and-cure organizations, and groups such as the Autism Self-Advocacy Network clearly fall into the neurodiversity camp.

However, what seems to have not been addressed or is not visible in the dialogue about autism is economic self-sufficiency for the autistic community. As with any community of people who has had to fight for its civil rights in the United States, there have always been multiple individuals and organizations addressing the question from legal, sociological, and human standpoints. However, with any of these communities, there have always been businesses owned by member individuals working quietly in the background to further the co­­mmunity economically and thus raise its standard of living and reduce its dependency on the majority. In simpler terms, the community that can sustain itself economically can raise itself up and fight for itself better in terms of legal and civil rights.

Three major communities that come to mind as examples are the GLBTQ community, the African-American community, and various Asian communities in the United States. I am the most familiar with the role that Black business has played in the development and history of Black people in the United States. Before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s even began, Black entrepreneurs such as Madam C.J. Walker contributed to the economic growth of the community, which included measurable outputs such as more jobs and increased wealth. This trend continued into the civil rights movement of the 60’s, oftentimes running parallel with social movements and groups such as that of non-violence, the Black Power movement, and even the Nation of Islam. And Black entrepreneurship continues to do so today, contributing to the economic growth of the community.

Expanding outward, let’s consider the GLBTQ and various Asian communities as further examples of these trends. Running alongside the queer rights movement in the United States has been GLBTQ-owned business, again contributing to the economic growth of its community. And Asian-owned businesses are almost ubiquitous in the U.S.: Asian- and Indian-owned businesses scatter the commercial landscape of nearly every major metropolitan area. And delving further into the Indian community for just a moment, Indian business owners are integral parts of their local Indian communities, oftentimes present at and helping support Indian community events and providing jobs for other Indians.

Now let’s jump from how minority-owned business help create economic self-sufficiency for their communities to how those same businesses help in another aspect. Going back to Madam C.J. Walker as an example for a moment, it is noteworthy that after she became successful she moved into political activism. In this arena, she is most known for donating her time and money into the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement of the early 1900’s. A modern example of this can also be seen in the GLBTQ community as many queer-owned businesses contribute both time and money to advocacy for issues affecting queer people, such as equal opportunity in employment, same-sex marriage legalization, and so forth. So while an entrepreneur who lends his/her time and money to causes affecting his/her community of membership may not make the six o’clock news like a march on the Capitol, the effects of their actions can still be felt by that community at large.

Now, where is the autistic community in all of this? I ask this question amidst the frequently cited 85% unemployment rate among autistic adults as well as the dearth of visible autistic entrepreneurs. I posed the same question to Mr. Ne’eman during the question-and-answer session of the talk, and he wasn’t really able to cite much in the way of visible autistic-owned businesses and economic self-sufficiency. There is a clear field of opportunity here for autistic individuals to step forward, enter into entrepreneurship, and to help develop the autistic community in the same way economically.

Some individuals and organizations have already stepped forward and are pioneers in this aspect. Before she began sharing her expertise about autism, Dr. Temple Grandin began a career as a consultant in the livestock industry. She was self-employed, working with clients in the industry to build systems and equipment in slaughterhouses and other facilities – thus, she has made a living as an independent contractor and business woman using her education, expertise, and autistic talents. She has also offered her life experiences and expertise to help others in the autistic community, especially young people, be able to use their talents to either find gainful, meaningful employment or to go into business for themselves. Another example: for the last fifteen years Leonora Gregory-Collura, one of the proprietors of ANCA Consulting and who is herself autistic, has worked with autistic individuals and their families to help them develop their talents and capabilities naturally, using the natural functions and processes of the autistic mind as a map and guide. By using its expertise in what is “right” with the autistic mind to help autistic individuals, ANCA has enriched the autistic community by not only helping clients but by generating income and employing autistic people.

Moving to the arts for a second, I also need to mention author, singer, and comedienne Rudy Simone. Most of you are familiar with her Asperger- and autism-related work – namely her books Aspergirls and Asperger’s on the Job. She also has full-time careers as a jazz singer and stand-up comedienne, so she is a notable example of an autistic person supporting oneself through one’s art. I in a sense can relate to this as a writer and poet in saying that the model of a self-supporting autistic artist does exist.

What I have offered to you are two examples of autistic entrepreneurs and one example of an independent autistic artist – autistic women, no less – who prove that the economic self-sufficiency that I speak of is very possible for the autistic community. My thought is that perhaps entrepreneurship (or artistic self-sufficiency) may be one possible answer to decreasing the 85% autistic unemployment rate (and by extension helping those in the community who are underemployed). How might autistic entrepreneurship solve this problem? First of all, the businessperson will create an income for him- or herself and will reduce the chances that he or she will be dependent on government or organized charity for his or her living, which is in and of itself a strength. Secondly, the autistic businessperson has the ability to offer employment opportunities to other autistics in an environment which would be autistic-friendly, not just in the physical aspects such as a sensory-friendly environment but also in having other autistics around to foster a workplace culture that is understanding. Thirdly, the autistic person will carve out opportunities for him- or herself as an alternative to working for someone else: he or she can set his/her environment, working conditions, and working ethos to best support his/her success.

The possibilities are out there, in this new world and economy. And just as entrepreneurs in the African-American, GLBTQ, and Asian communities have shown us, businesses in those communities are an integral part to any endeavor for both civil rights and to counter the misunderstanding and prejudice that people in those communities have faced. If we autistics hope to do the same, we cannot do this without autistic entrepreneurship.


5 thoughts on “Economic Self-Sufficiency and the Autistic Community

  1. The problem with this is the extreme difficulty of making a living through art. Throughout time artists have always relied on wealthy patrons, and still the majority lived in poverty.

    You have to be more than just good. You have to be lucky …too.

    • Somehow, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to believe less in luck and more in creating one’s own circumstances, as much as possible. Yes, you are correct in that it is extremely difficult to make a living through art. However, with the economy becoming what it is and the world changing, and niches popping up, I believe it might actually be easier for an artist to make a living. On one hand, you do have the “dumbing down” of popular culture, especially here in the states and that is probably why some of the arts (and I can especially speak to this in the poetry world) are having difficulty. BUT, I don’t believe all is lost. You do not have to me a “megastar” to make a decent living as an artist — I think it may be a matter of using the talent one has, honing it, and then seeking opportunities. Maybe I’m a bit optimistic, but that is my honest point of view.

      Wendy, thank you for stopping by. Your comments are always welcome.


  2. The arts world is a hard place to make a living, but it can also be a great one. Remember, there’s so much more to do than just be a visual or performing artist; there are all of the backstage, production, administrative and design elements. There are lots of opportunities to create freelance positions. And the arts world is full of all varieties of marginalized people, which I think goes a long way towards making it a warm and accepting place. You do have to be very, very good, but socially, it’s a much more forgiving world.

    As Nicole mentioned, in the wake of the latest economic collapse, I actually did feel that I was better off where I was, as a freelancer in the arts, than I would’ve been in a traditional job. There is no job security anymore for anyone; suddenly the precariousness of my existence was actually an advantage. I’d ALWAYS been scraping through, and I knew that I’d always be able to.

    It is about finding your niche and honing your particular talents, and the arts world has a lot of good little niches for people like us.

  3. I like this article. But I do think that this is a much more difficult thing to actually do than you make it sound. Many of us are simply trying to get through the day and have a very hard time functioning just on a basic day to day level. We certainly haven’t had an opportunity to realize any talents we can use for economic gain, many of us don’t even know if we have any special talents or what they would be. Those of us who do realize special talents, we are very aware that a lot of these are useless towards employment. They were either never channeled properly or autism or other disabiities got in the way of being able to make them a reality. Many of us simply aren’t able to keep up enough socially to use an interest of ours in the real world. We do great in solitude but put us in front of people and we don’t do so well. This is a nice idea and I am sure for the highest functioning among us it could be a reality but for every one person with aspergers or autism that is good enough with computers to make a living or is artistic enough to use those skills for economic gain there are so many others who don’t have any of those talents and aren’t particularly entreprenurial in their personality. A special interest does not neccessarily equal a talent either. This has been my biggest issue. I wish there was a place in the world for everyone but there really isn’t. That is the biggest problem.

    • Hi Chelsea:

      I read your comment and I do get what you are saying. What I tried to start here was an introduction, an “opening of the door”, if you will, to the idea of self-sufficiency. I do agree that we as a population face challenges that are unique to us — not the same kinds of challenges as say the African-American community (which being part African-American, I am intimately familiar with those) or as the GLBTQ community: you mentioned day-to-day living, opportunities to identify marketable talents, issues with social interactions, and so forth. I will admit to you, I myself am still struggling with this and I am neither very outgoing socially nor am I a “salesperson” so to speak.

      But I still do think that there are possibilities out in front of us. I’m still trying to chew on this issue in my mind and figure out exactly what it is that we would need to be successful. The things that most readily come to mind are: mentorship (Dr. Grandin has mentioned this before in one of her books, Discovering Talents), an identification of marketable skills (again, a trusted teacher, mentor, or professional would be key in this)…and as for identifying our talents, I really think we do need professionals who are familiar with autistic individuals and understand our particular challenges. I would think that perhaps those of us in the autistic community who are successful business people would be the best ones to step up to the plate to help the rest…not too far off from those aforementioned African-American and GLBTQ business owners.

      The issue is indeed more complex, but it’s one that I am willing to explore further. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, and stay tuned.


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