Modeled After ‘Shark Tank,’ Program Opens Doors For Adults On The Spectrum
HOUSTON — Tristan Martinez stepped in front of a panel of experts in wide-ranging fields. The 23-year-old stocker at a dollar store began to discuss his passion for wellness, hoping someone in the group could help him get a foot in the door as an assistant to a personal trainer or a physical therapist. Then his nerves got the better of him. He paused, looked at his feet with a sigh and started over.
Imagine you are about to pitch your idea for a business, on TV, to the people who can fund it: the millionaires and billionaires of “Shark Tank.” To get them to bite, you must project calm confidence, no matter how nervous you are.
Now imagine you have autism, and what you’re selling is — yourself.
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Welcome to the Reactor Room. As on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” in which budding entrepreneurs peddle ideas to titans of industry to invest and bring a plan to market, an adult with autism, called a “Reactor,” shares his or her passions with “Activators.” Those passions involve working with others, an idea for a business or an invention. In turn, the Activators, a panel of entrepreneurs, business leaders and social innovators, share connections and ideas to help the participant find not just a job but a meaningful career.
The program is for adults on the autism spectrum whose strengths are virtually untapped. An initiative by the Houston organization Spectrum Fusion, it is examining the way business thinks about talent — and the way those with autism fit into the working world.
Before they become Reactors, Spectrum Fusion director Heidi Stieglitz Ham asks: In your wildest dreams, what do you want to do?
That conversation lets them imagine the intersection of talents and interests to create a strategy for finding engaging work. A social entrepreneur and autism researcher who networks with leaders in several industries, Ham launched the Reactor Room in late 2017.
“We’re here moving outside the traditional system to create novel solutions for adults on the autism spectrum,” Ham told those gathered for the most recent Reactor Room, held in March at Rice University. “… Children (with autism) are reaching adulthood in record numbers, and we really don’t have a lot of options for them.”
National advocacy group Autism Speaks estimates 500,000 teens with autism will reach adulthood over the next 10 years. At present, 90 percent of adults with the disorder that impairs communication and social interaction are unemployed or underemployed.
“We can’t wait for the state or government to do something,” Ham said.
For now, the Reactor Room is held only a few times a year, while Ham secures sponsorships and ensures Reactors are prepared to make their pitch for a job or mentor. Eight have taken part so far.
Spectrum Fusion clients fall on the mild end of the spectrum; intellect isn’t affected, and social impairments aren’t always readily apparent. Some hold college degrees. One is married with a family. Many live independently. But most have struggled on the job.
Houston-born Will Purdy, 28, was the first Reactor. Last year, sitting at Ham’s table in a tweed jacket and crisp white shirt, he looked every bit the writer he was becoming. He grew up in the Chicago area and took gifted-and-talented classes. He came back to Texas to study psychology at Southwestern University in Georgetown.
When he returned to Houston in 2014, he was frustrated with the “cookie-cutter” jobs available to people with autism. Purdy, whose diagnosis came just a few years ago, said agencies lack time and resources to look at the whole person.
“I’m a human being, not a list of neuroses and numbers,” he said, noting famous people with autism whose contributions to society would be hard to measure, including actor Dan Aykroyd, who has spoken publicly about his diagnosis.
Purdy found himself working at a comic-book store, sorting merchandise into boxes. But he’d rather have been writing.
His Reactor Room panel included an editor who subsequently published an article he wrote. He took on Spectrum Fusion’s blog, then wrote for Hire Autism, a job board and resource website.
Today, Purdy does plenty of writing in his position with Houston’s SEO411. “You fit right in, whether you know it or not,” Beth Guide, head of the digital marketing service, said at the Rice event. “… He has a job with us as long as he wants to stay.”
Ready to launch
Once Ham sees clarity from candidates — about the path they want to pursue and how to communicate it — they become Reactors.
At the March event, Rhys Griffin stood before the panel of seven. With a communications degree from the University of Houston-Clear Lake and an internship at municipal channel HTV under his belt, the 25-year-old entertained the Activators with impressions of film characters. But he said his experience writing, operating video cameras, reporting, editing video and performing voice-overs had yet to net him a position.
“I’ve gotten social training. It’s talking one on one that’s harder,” Griffin explained. “Deep down, I’m kind of cowering a little bit.”
Then it was the Activators’ turn.
Retired KTRK (Channel 13) reporter Don Kobos said the news industry wants multitaskers. He suggested Griffin pursue TV news and mention his cartoon work on the side to demonstrate “creative and news together.”
“Everyone needs safety videos. And you could make them interesting,” offered community volunteer Brenda Koch, who has a TV-news and public relations background.
“Oh, I wrote a couple of those!” Griffin replied.
“There’s video opportunities everywhere,” Koch added, listing local companies that produce sports footage and dub cartoons.
For Martinez, the Activators narrowed their questions to better gauge his interests. He revealed he’s still kicking himself over a lost opportunity at a gym. After a volunteer period, he interviewed for a paid job signing people in. “Do you want this role?” he was asked. He gave an unfiltered answer, which is typical of those with autism. Thinking he’d be bored not working directly with clients, he said no, he wasn’t interested.
Activator Henry Richardson, CEO of Define Body & Mind, admired Martinez’s passion. To decide between fitness and nutrition, “you could find a mentor (certified in both).” Children with special needs could benefit from a Martinez-created class, he added.
Last year, Activator Samina Farid had her notions of autism dispelled by Matthew Curran, 25, a Reactor seeking a career in video production. She thought he would be “a recluse who wouldn’t look me in the eye.” Instead, she found a polite young man with potential.
Farid is co-founder and former CEO of Merrick Systems (now P2 Merrick), which provides software to the oil-and-gas industry. Chosen for Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative that takes on challenges in the social sector, she also helped develop foster children’s social skills via nonprofit Houston Achievement Place.
Still, she hesitated when Ham approached her.
“I do sit on boards and do mentor. I’ve seen groups throw a lot of money at (a problem), but they don’t get anything out of it,” Farid said. The Reactor Room has “a constructive approach with measurable outcomes. As a businessperson, I can relate to that.”
She followed up with to-do notes for Curran, who holds a degree in media production from the University of Houston. He started a YouTube show, “Can I Cook It?” The cooking novice said it added examples of video editing to his résumé — “There’ll be a cross-dissolve to the next scene,” he announced during the taping of his fourth episode, in which he and a Spectrum Fusion colleague baked a strawberry pie.
It also got him in front of the camera.
“I’m not trying to be a YouTube star,” he said. “Maybe I could learn something.”
Today he handles audiovisuals for Spectrum Fusion and has made videos for BP and Johnson & Johnson. He is working on a documentary for Houston Early Music.
A brighter future
Farid has a message for the business community:
“We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t look at our resources and see what they can offer. Are there people who are underutilized? How can we tap into it? … This helps the economy because they are less of a burden to the state. It helps businesses find winners, and it helps people fend for themselves.”
A week after the Rice event, Griffin was hired for a voice-over project at SEO411, and Martinez started volunteering at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Ham said capable adults with autism can make a greater contribution. “How is society not getting how amazing these people are?”
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