CHAPEL HILL — Jackson Bono is good at math and is an excellent typist, but his mother thought his chances of finding employment were limited because Jackson also is autistic.
Then she heard about Extraordinary Ventures, a Chapel Hill nonprofit that starts businesses aimed at employing those with autism and developmental disorders. In 2009, while still in high school, Jackson began watering plants at the businesss offices. After he graduated in May 2011, he added washing, folding and delivering clothes for Extraordinary Ventures laundry business to his job description.
Theres a start, and a finish, and a job-well-done, Laura Bono said. For Jackson, like all of us, having something to do is important. It really provides that critical social component.
The nonprofit builds its businesses around in-demand services that require skills many with autism spectrum disorders already excel at like a laundry service ideal for those who like organization and repetition, and a candle-making gifts business for those who enjoy cooking and crafts, said Tom Kuell, director of operations at Extraordinary Ventures. Its goal is to provide jobs to a growing cohort of local autistic adults while creating a model that can be used elsewhere.
Its not trying to minimize their weaknesses, its really trying to maximize their strengths, he said of employees, explaining that he thinks the businesses will become sustainable because it produces quality products. We make candles, and they are better than Yankee Candles.
A need for employment
Autism spectrum disorder is the second most common developmental disability following mental retardation, and in the state of North Carolina alone, there are more than 50,000 individuals with the disorder, according to the Autism Society of North Carolina.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published this year, one in 88 children nationwide (one in 70 in North Carolina) suffered from the disorder in 2008. Autism spectrum disorders are about five times more prevalent in boys than in girls.
The nationwide figure marked a sharp increase the CDC-funded Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network reported in 2009 that autism affected one in 110 children nationwide in 2006. As children diagnosed today age, they move out of the school support system and find themselves in need of meaningful employment.
There are many more families in the Triangle area that have children with autism than in any other part of the state, said David Laxton, director of communications for the Autism Society of North Carolina, explaining that services available to serve those with autism draw families to the area. But as they get older and begin to search for jobs, resources often dont keep up and many with the disorder find themselves unemployed.
Kids with autism become adults with autism, Laxton said.
Extraordinary Ventures was established in 2007 when a group of parents concerned about the lack of jobs for autistic children who have aged out of high school joined together to find a solution. Ed Bedford, who has been involved with the Autism Society and has an adult daughter with autism, was one of the five founders who helped form the business.
Real jobs, with real pay, thats our goal, he said. We wanted to have different ventures in different businesses.
The nonprofit started out with a banquet hall and meeting room rental business and has grown to include a gifts venture that markets bath salts and candles online and at local retailers, a gravesite care business that places silk flowers on graves through purchased packages, Chapel Hill Transit bus maintenance, football parking and the laundry service. Its jobs cater to those who would have trouble finding employment elsewhere, but the group employs people with different work ability levels, Kuell said.
Extraordinary Ventures roughly 40 developmentally disabled employees about two-thirds of whom have autism not only gain skills and job training, but are great workers, said Van Hatchell, a 2011 Kenan-Flagler graduate who is director of marketing and head of the gifts business.
This population is a big workforce that can be tapped if you just give them a chance, he said. The group uses donations from its founders and profits from its businesses to fund its ventures and doesnt take government funding, he said. Job coaches from the University of North Carolinas TEACHH Autism Program provide Extraordinary Ventures workers with one-on-one, job-related guidance in a Medicaid-funded coaching program, said Laura Klinger, Director of TEACHH and a member of Extraordinary Ventures board.
I think it is a fabulous program. One of the reasons theyre so successful is their willingness to collaborate with others in the community, Klinger said. She said the business is unique in that it builds its program around the needs of those with autism while allowing its employees to work as part of the broader public through delivery services and other activities.
Other employment programs for autism exist locally, but they often occur in a workshop setting separate from the community and pay below minimum wage, Klinger said.
People with autism spectrum disorders have diverse needs and require individualized solutions, so while socially integrated jobs like Extraordinary Ventures are great for some, more isolated options may be better for those who prefer seclusion, said Laxton of the state Autism Society.
Life Experiences in Cary is one local outlet for those with developmental disabilities who arent ready or able to work in society. The nonprofit was incorporated in 1978 to create jobs for developmentally disabled adults and today employs 48 people, said executive director Mary Madenspacher. It has grown from a bakery to include a commercial laundry business. It is approved to pay less than minimum wage and workers are separate from the outside community, but Madenspacher said it does give employees many of whom have multiple disorders and are nonverbal the satisfaction of real work.
Everybody needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning, she said. We give that to our folks.
Helping those with autism spectrum disorders find jobs can be a challenge, but its an important one to solve, said Kara Hume, a research scientist from UNCs Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute who has been studying Extraordinary Ventures model.
We do know that there is a high rate of depression and anxiety among those with autism, Hume said. Work could alleviate those feelings, and creating jobs catered to autism is a positive step, she said.
Making it work
Wafts of mulled cider mix with the scent of laundry soap in the brightly lit basement that serves as Extraordinary Ventures workshop. Employees fold laundry and assemble candles currently autumn-themed in the room, which is down a flight of carpeted stairs from the business offices and rental banquet hall. The plain walls are decorated with posters that provide step-by-step instructions for highly specific jobs over full-color photographs.
No, one reads, depicting poorly folded shorts slashed over in red. The picture to the right of the poor folding shows the same clothing, neatly stacked, under a bold Yes.
People with autism sometimes struggle with certain tasks, as Extraordinary Ventures leaders have found a newspaper delivery service, for instance, proved too stressful and time-sensitive and had to be cut. The team has used methods like color-coding to simplify or clarify other jobs that could be confusing.
The goal is to get everybody to work as independently as possible, Kuell said. The system evolved over time, he said, with input from experts at TEACHH and people like Hume. Kuell said it seems to be helping employees to master skills.
Even as the workers flourish, word is spreading and the businesses are expanding, Kuell said. Extraordinary Ventures added 22 jobs across its entire portfolio this summer, more than doubling in size. Laundry is turning a profit, and he said other divisions are headed in that direction.
As it becomes successful, Kuell said the goal is that the businesses will become a teachable model for others.
All of our hard work, were starting to see the fruit, he said. Things are going from being this idea to businesses that work.