There is much wisdom to be drawn from Muhammad Ali- such as believe in yourself, stand up for justice, help others, and work hard at your craft. But there is also a surprising lesson to be drawn from his life story— learn to appreciate neurodiversity and neuroplasticity, as did Ali’s legendary trainer and friend, Angelo Dundee.
By Oliver Thornton
An Asperger’s Story: What Inspired Me to Found Coding Autism and Improve the Lives of Individuals on the Autism Spectrum
In 1994, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, the milder version of autism, shortly after my older brother Trinity was diagnosed with autism. When I was first diagnosed, autism was still perceived as a rare condition that was a parent’s worst nightmare. In fact, numerous doctors told my family that my brother’s autism was so severe that they doubted he would be able to speak in his lifetime.
Naturally, my parents were very concerned after hearing this feedback. Despite the doctor’s pessimistic statements, my parents worked tirelessly to ensure that my brother received the care necessary to overcome these barriers. Through a combination of the support of family, teachers, speech therapists, and a dose of Lenny Kravitz’s hit song “Fly Away,” Trinity spoke his first words at the age of 7 by singing that song. From that point on, my parents enrolled Trinity into public school with me, where we were both part of the IEP (Individualized Education Program) until graduating high school.
Although my autistic traits were less pronounced than my brother’s, he became a formative inspiration to me. His story taught me to embrace living with Asperger’s syndrome and to believe that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to.
It wasn’t until my senior year at California Lutheran University (CLU) where I started to piece together the direction I wanted to take for my life. For one of my capstone classes, I was assigned the task of developing an idea for a start-up and enrolling it into the CLU New Venture Competition. Having grown up with autism and wanting to start a business that would help the autistic community, I decided to conduct some research to see what needs I could address when creating my business.
I have experienced first hand how despite the assistance of IEP, the traditional education system disadvantages individuals on the spectrum. I have also witnessed individuals on the autism spectrum, such as my brother, thriving in our society if they are provided the necessary accommodations.
The findings were beyond eye opening. I came across articles, publications, TED Talks presentations, and much more that discussed the major problems of unemployment/underemployment amongst adults on the autism spectrum. Additionally, the research showed that 1.) there was a positive correlation between the characteristics of individuals on the autism spectrum and the successful software engineer (Wired), and 2.) that software and technology professions contained the most job vacancies amongst any other industry in the United States, with average entry level salaries above $40,000 a year (Glassdoor).
This information motivated me to look further into why people on the autism spectrum were not getting hired for high-growth positions. I found that the problem was not that autistic individuals were not employable. In fact, some incredibly large companies such as Microsoft, SAP,and Ernst and Young (EY) started their own autism hiring initiatives. These initiatives were so successful that almost all of them were expanded to other locations and filling a wider variety of job positions (Monster). The real problem was that there were insufficient programs, companies, or educational curricula for adults on the autism spectrum that would help them develop and learn the skills needed to qualify for high-growth careers. Because of this, over 80% of all adults on the autism spectrum are either unemployed or underemployed (Forbes).
Ultimately, this 80% figure was what drove me to come up with Coding Autism. I then enrolled Coding Autism into my university’s New Venture Competition, where I was selected as a Top 5 Company to present in front of an audience of over 150 people on April 30th, 2016. The prize was $2,500 to be used towards the development of the winner’s start-up idea. This recognition helped me realize where I wanted to take my life and how I could give back to the autism community.
With a new sense of purpose, I channeled newfound energy into creating a more progressive society for people on the autism spectrum. I was able to express my vision to the crowd and panelists at CLU and ended up winning the competition .
The feeling I received from winning the CLU New Venture Competition was indescribable. Not only did the victory validate my concept for Coding Autism, but it inspired me to keep pursuing my dream to build a company that would benefit the autistic community.
I firmly believe that everyone on this planet has a specific purpose and that in order to discover that purpose, you have to go through many life experiences. As someone on the autism spectrum, I see the world through a different lens. I have experienced first hand how despite the assistance of IEP, the traditional education system disadvantages individuals on the spectrum. I have also witnessed individuals on the autism spectrum, such as my brother, thriving in our society if they are provided the necessary accommodations.
What autistic individuals need is a progressive learning and support platform tailored to their needs rather than sticking with traditional methods that repeatedly prove to fail. With Coding Autism, I am creating a progressive learning and support platform for individuals on the autism spectrum.
Since April of 2016, Coding Autism has participated in several other venture competitions such as TechWeek Los Angeles, the ASU Innovation Open, and the Global Social Venture competition and won the 805 Start-Ups competition. Additionally, we currently have a live crowdfunding campaign on StartSomeGood under the title “Coding Autism: Training Adults with Autism in Code”, where we have raised 78% of our $50,000 goal within 18 days that lasts until April 30th. The proceeds of our campaign will go towards our Coding Autism ASPIRE Program, which is the first full-time web development training program specifically designed for adults on the autism spectrum.
For those who took the time out of their busy lives to read this article, I hope that my story of founding Coding Autism inspires you to discover your true purpose. If you have not discovered your purpose yet, my advice to you is: try as many things as humanly possible that you are intrigued and passionate about, and to read heavily about societal problems that you have an attachment to. The more you are aware of your surroundings and discover the flaws around it, the more likely you are to realize what your purpose in life is. Don’t be afraid to take risks or challenge traditional norms, follow your gut, and learn from your life experiences!
Oliver Thornton is an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, residential real estate agent, and CEO/Co-Founder of Coding Autism. For more information, visit http://codingautism.com/