How My Son's Autism Inspired Business Innovation

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David Friedman
David Friedman
My son, Matt, was diagnosed with autism at age three, so I was accustomed to the annual meeting at school to discuss progress with his individualized education plan. But in 2009, when Matt turned 14, I found myself unprepared for the "transition planning" meeting required by law to help parents set a course for high school and afterward.

"How in the world is Matt going to support himself when he's finished high school?" This was the question my wife and I hadn't thought through very well, though we knew we would have to face the issue once we accepted that our son would not sail through high school, go to college and then be off on his own.

I knew there had to be a place for Matt. But it wasn't until then that I realized that this place I would have to create -- a business that would support my son and other young people with autism. Many people with autism have unusual talents -- from pattern memory, to extreme focus and accuracy. Could their skills be used to solve a real business need?

According to Autism Speaks, the national advocacy organization, nearly 90% of young adults with autism are unemployed, and an estimated 50,000 people with autism disorders enter the workforce each year. This represents a vast amount of high-potential human capital, sitting around untapped. Was there a way to harness all that potential?

The 2009 "transition planning" meeting happened when I was president of a large advertising agency, Razorfish. But it was only when I was working at Sears Holdings that the business idea came together. At Sears, we produced 90 million advertising circulars each week -- 20 to 50 pages each with multiple images, prices and text. We had a factory of circular workers who quickly got bored with the repetitive, process-oriented work. At Razorfish, too, we were struggling with an industry-wide overcapacity of digital advertisements that needed to be trafficked, reconciled and reported by agency professionals.

More often than not, these tasks were done by junior-level advertising folks who had envisioned a career full of exciting creative decisions, not the repetitive, exacting tasks associated with processing ads' backend with excel and other tools. Yet, to any number of people with autism spectrum disorder, the order and consistency of doing tasks requiring laser focus on the tiniest of details over and over again is not tedium but comfort. It seemed like a perfect fit.

AutonomyWorks, the company I founded to give my son Matt and others like him access to a career, has been running for over a year, offering marketing agencies a pool of workers who can execute highly-detailed, repetitive, technology-based process tasks like data, analytics and web-maintenance functions. Right now we employ 15 people (11 with disabilities and four managers) and are able to pay a living wage for our region, with benefits for full-time associates.

Employing this population does require a few more one-time expenses than usual -- a little more training, one-on-one training, up-front process design and workstation design. The additional cost is minimal and more than balanced by lower turnover and improved productivity. One of the advantages of this business model is that we have all of our associates working in a dedicated facility. We are able to leverage these expenses across our entire population of associates very efficiently. Our clients can get the work they need done affordably without having to outsource it abroad.

We are building the business with an eye toward scalability and are working to build a prototype service center in Chicago of about 300 people that will be completed at the end of 2015. Success so far shows that we have found a way to employ an exceptional, but hidden, workforce. Best of all, parents of young men and women with autism have one more answer to the question, "How will my child support himself when he grows up?"

David Friedman is founder and CEO of Chicago-based AutonomyWorks, a 2013 Chicago Innovation Awards winner, and previously held executive marketing roles at Sears Holdings, Razorfish and Andersen Consulting.
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