Awakening The Autism Entrepreneur

UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities receives grant to help entrepreneurs employ people with autism

Dr. Michael Alessandri, clinical professor of psychology at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences and executive director of the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), was awarded a $515,000 multi-year grant from a not-for-profit foundation for his proposal to help employ adults with autism and other related disabilities in the workplace.

The proposal called, “Awakening the Autism Entrepreneur,” seeks to help those who are interested in creating businesses that employ people with autism. The three-year grant will go towards funding educational workshops nationwide, podcasts, webinars, and other dynamic and innovative activities for those interested in pursuing social enterprises employing people with autism.

“I felt great and a bit overwhelmed when I received word of our grant being funded, but I feel excited now about the extraordinary opportunities that are ahead of us,” said Alessandri. “This is a potential game changer if we get this information and this kind of support out to people who eager to create more employment opportunities for autistic adults but perhaps don’t have the information and support to proceed in a manner that would allow them to create a viable, sustainable business.”

The process began when CARD collaborated with the internationally acclaimed Rising Tide Car Wash five years ago. Nearly 85 percent of the employees at Rising Tide have some form of autism. After helping provide technical expertise and support in employing autistic adults, Alessandri pitched a preliminary proposal for funding in entrepreneurship programs and support nationwide. Shortly after, Alessandri received a letter in the mail informing him of the grant award.

“Our mission is to change the paradigm of how the world thinks of people with disabilities. We think of them as people with unique abilities, and we need to create employment opportunities that embrace their uniqueness and strengths as opposed to exploit their disabilities,” said Alessandri.

This initiative incorporates two aspects of training: CARD offering expertise in how to work with autistic adults, and Rising Tide teaching would-be entrepreneurs the business side of things. For Alessandri, the goal is not to provide charity for people with autism, but opportunities for them to be independent.

Currently, 80 to 90 percent of people with autism are either unemployed or underemployed in the workplace. Clinical research has shown that many people with autism function well in highly regimental systems with clear expectations and systematic processes and procedures. Where the average person becomes bored with repetition, people with autism may be more comfortable with the predictable nature of such work.

“We talk about autism not as a disability, but as a potential competitive advantage for businesses,” said Alessandri. “People with autism are highly reliable and with the right support can be very productive.”

To date, a second car wash is being built in Margate, FL, with the same business model as Rising Tide. Alessandri’s long-term goal is to form an autism entrepreneurship institute at UM that functions as a hub in the South Florida area for people who can work together with those with autism.

Housed in the UM College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology, UM-NSU CARD is a state-funded resource and support program dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with autism and related disabilities including deaf-blindness and pervasive developmental disorders. 

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May 25, 2016