Autism Expressed

I had never been as nervous to present, as I was the day I stood in front of the Corzo Center Grant Competition Panelists. I have presented and conducted training session a plethora of times, but always in a subject matter in which I had a significant amount of experience. This time, I felt like I had all the language for education, cognition and behavior as well as the many facets of digital media, but very little for “the business world.” It was foreign and intimidating and I knew I was but a fledgling in this new world. However, I had a vision and was very prepared to execute it.

I began my pitch describing the problem I had identified as a teacher working with adolescents with Autism.

“In the US, more than 1.5 million individuals have an ASD, a prevalence growing 17% annually. This year, 200,000+ capable adolescents with Autism will enter high school & begin their transition to independence. Their parents will seek transition services, but find nothing in the market focused on the life skills needed in today’s digital world. Without skills to email, search, network, etc., students are limited in their post‐secondary educational outcomes & pigeonholed into low wage paying jobs. In other words, students with Autism are overlooked for career tracking due to the nuances of their disability.”

Because no other curriculum, therapy or vocational program offered a tailored training specifically designed for the unique educational needs of a student with Autism, I wanted to produce the first and only online learning system that taught students with Autism to use digital and social media to pursue their transition to independence.

While I am not unlike the millions of people who passionately advocate for students with Autism, I would be the most qualified to begin a movement that bridges the gap in services for this population. In fact, it is through my unique background in both Digital Media Literacy, which was established during my undergraduate studies at The University of the Arts, College of Media & Communication, as well as my Masters research in Autism Education, that I have been able to identify and develop the solution.

With the same exuberant persistence to which I achieved success in my own classroom, I presented my idea to scale my unique curriculum through an online learning system that would ultimately raise the bar for all students with Autism.

Autism Expressed would teach students with Autism today's must‐have digital‐age skills, giving them a greater advantage when pursuing their autonomy & independence. Students would learn everything from email & web‐browsing, to creating websites & social networking. Autism Expressed students would get a portfolio of necessary digital skills & a platform to showcase their abilities & personal interest. This would ultimately increases empowerment & earning potential for our students as they pursue their post‐secondary goals.

Somehow I was able to convince just enough people that I knew what I was talking about and was awarded the $10,000 grant!

Joking aside, even though I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to accomplish during my Corzo presentation, I was naive to what it would actually take to start a business—You just don’t know what you don’t know.

Around the same time that I was awarded the grant money, I was invited to participate in the Good Company Ventures Summer Incubator. For the duration of this program, I would participate in workshops and discussions to develop domain knowledge and skills in the art of entrepreneurship. I was a bit intimidated by the group of impressive participants that summer. Many already had or were working towards their MBA and seemed leagues ahead of me when it came to understanding concepts of business. However, I continued to take everything in, trying to balance my focus on both what GCV was teaching and simultaneously developing my product with the grant money.

I sought out business and technology advisor, Rick Genzer who became my advisor and worked to develop our initial product requirements. Through our conversations, it became obvious that my original idea of setting up the content via a ready made e‐learning authoring system would not be appropriate or efficient in delivering content to the user. If I was going to accomplish my goal, I had to rethink my product strategy.

We would need both a custom platform and interface specifically tailored for the user with Autism. I hired user experience designer, Kyle Mirro, who recently graduated from The University of the Arts’ Multimedia Program and Tony Demark, an experienced developer and technology consultant. These were two unexpected needs and unforeseen, yet necessary expenses that would alter my budget and my original plan. Kyle, Rick, Tony and I began discussing and planning out how the objectives of the curriculum and needs of the user would translate to a custom online learning portal.

From all this, Autism Expressed was officially conceived.

Perhaps much like carrying a child to term, what followed in those months of development were cycles of excitement, frustration, self‐doubt, confidence, sense of achievement, fear and above all, stress. It was (and still is) a struggle to juggle the many hats I found myself wearing: Founder, CEO, Product Manager, Content Developer, Director of Marketing, etc. On my list of struggles (right under managing the overall stress of starting such a venture), one of the hardest was managing people. Communicating, re‐communicating, alignment, realignment, expectations, deadlines…Ugh. I’m getting a headache already! So much to do and learn yet, I had to continually be the force that worked to keep moving people and deliverables forward.

I have been fortunate and am immensely grateful for all of individuals and organizations that have continually supported me throughout this journey— especially The Corzo Center, The University of the Arts and thus, Neil Kleinman! All three have truly been the catalyst to pursue this path and dream.

Then, there were the people in my life who simply believed in me and reminded me of their faith in my vision and ability to carry it out. In those moments of self‐doubt, it was they who lifted the fog so I could see my destination a bit clearer.

Hindsight is always 20/20.

The learning curve has been immense to say the least and there are many things I might have addressed differently if I had to do it all over again. In many ways, my business venture experience has been like that of the students I work with. Like them, I was learning to navigate unfamiliar situations, without direct & explicit direction one needs in unfamiliar circumstances. I dealt with anxiety that disrupted my thinking and confidence in decision‐making. There were moments where I felt that I was not cut out to spearhead this venture. Using the same lesson I teach all of my students, I found a way to PERSEVERE & now feel confident that I will achieve success no matter the obstacles. The more I come to understand my students & their struggle, the more I grow to understand my own.

Through all the blood, sweat and tears, today, Autism Expressed exists in a beta state with minimal content. We have unveiled our new website and will be adding to it this summer. Through our website, interested parties can learn more about Autism Expressed , contribute and even register for a free one‐week trial that will begin in June 2012. Product requirements for our full launch are being refined and thereafter shopped for estimates on development. Our goal is to announce our full launch in September 2012.

As I work to raise additional funding for business development, I keep in mind that Autism Expressed will crawl, walk & then run a marathon of advocacy until we achieve a movement comparable to those of great spirit who have beat a path for civil rights & equal opportunity. We will lay the foundation that will change the way we view people with learning & behavior differences like Autism, focusing on the beauty of being unique. We will create a norm where first seen is not the condition of Autism, but rather, a person who has the extraordinary qualities that come with having Autism.