It’s a Good Thing: Autism creates some challenges for employment, but also some opportunities

Spring Activator gives entrepreneurs with autism spectrum disorder a real chance to grow.

Credit: Alex Jackman – Unsplash

Spring Activator gives entrepreneurs with autism spectrum disorder a real chance to grow

Awareness about autism—and the range of conditions that fall under its umbrella—is a relatively recent thing. The word first appeared in 1938, when Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger used it to describe a pattern of developmental behaviour in children—posthumously referred to as Asperger syndrome. But it took until 1980 for the all-important Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) to fully differentiate autism from childhood schizophrenia.

When the fifth edition of DSM was released in 2013, all of the individual developmental disorders associated with autism, including Asperger and Rett syndromes, were repositioned as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). What connects them all, to varying degrees, is some level of impaired social communication and/or interaction, and restricted and/or repetitive behaviours.

The other thing that connects those living with ASD: as they enter the workforce, they have a hard time getting—and keeping—jobs. The employment rate for autistic adults is about 14 percent, compared to more than 90 percent for the general population, according to the Canadian Survey on Disability, a 2012 study by Statistics Canada.

That stat—and the sort of untapped potential it represents—is something that stood out for Keith Ippel as he was exploring new ways to serve the goals of his Vancouver-based company, Spring Activator. The mission: to provide “impact entrepreneurs”—those with an aim to change the world—with the tools, training, resources, networks and support needed to validate their idea and, ultimately, launch a business.

“A couple of years ago, we had a young entrepreneur come to our program for idea-stage entrepreneurs who happened to work with people with ASD,” explains Ippel, Spring’s co-founder and CEO. “We ended up talking about some of the challenges that exist with people with ASD—especially once they hit their 18th birthday, which tends to be the point at which most government funding programs stop. We thought that there might be an opportunity to use innovation and entrepreneurship as one of the vehicles to help tackle that issue.”

A lot of the employment programs that exist for those with ASD are geared toward integrating people with autism into the workforce. But not everybody is well suited to a 9-to-5 corporate job. And so Ippel, working with his colleague Caroline von Hirschberg, Spring’s COO, developed an Incubator for Entrepreneurs with ASD—the first program of its kind in Canada and the first outside of the U.K., according to Ippel. The program is supported by two B.C.-based nonprofits: the Discovery Foundation and Community Futures British Columbia.

The inaugural ASD incubator, launched last November, saw five entrepreneurs go through a 13-week program, with a mixture of in-person and online/independent modules covering the basics of entrepreneurship. Von Hirschberg says the organizers paid special attention to everything from the lighting and audiovisual equipment in the onsite meeting rooms to how content was delivered remotely.

As for the entrepreneurial ideas themselves, one of the most promising, says von Hirschberg, was a mission-driven food concept from a First Nations participant: “He’s planning to set up a food truck that is a fusion of Indigenous and modern Canadian food, with the profits used to support land-based healing initiatives.”

For the incubator program to continue this fall, Spring will be seeking “greater partnerships in the community,” Ippel says, to ensure there’s more access to capital and mentorship opportunities. He’s hopeful the business community will see the potential, overcome their misperceptions about autism and “step up” to support those with ASD.

“Mainstream business has not yet been given all of the tools to understand the language that people with neurodiversity bring to an interview or a business meeting,” Ippel says. “Human beings have both innate skills as well as learned skills. For people with neurodiversity challenges, the language of business is very much a learned skill—and our program, along with others, has an opportunity to help to start to convey that language.”