People Creating Options: The Julie + Michael Tracy Family Foundation and Urban Autism Solutions

Be the change that you wish to see in the world – Mahatma Gandhi

Here at Autism College  we enjoy highlighting   people that  are working towards creating opportunities for those with autism. Here is a guest blog written by Michael Tracy, co-founder of the Julie + Michael Tracy Family Foundation (JMTF) and Urban Autism Solutions.  JMTF and Urban Solutions  exists to help address challenges  in regards to employment and housing that our young adults with autism face.

Julie and Michael Tracy

Julie and Michael Tracy

Julie and I are the parents of two sons, Joseph, 23, and John, 21. While Joe developed typically, John was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Autism) in preschool. We tried hard to mainstream him, but John struggled socially. No amount of soccer or Boy Scouts or 4H seemed to help. It tore out hearts out to see him so isolated. In middle school, John developed schizoaffective disorder. By the time he reached his sophomore year in high school he had been hospitalized at least three times and we could see that a big change was needed.

In his sophomore year in high school, John was enrolled in the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, a residential, therapeutic school associated with the University of Chicago. In the spring of 2011 he had his most serious psychotic break and was hospitalized for five weeks at Rush Hospital on the Near West Side of Chicago. It was a pretty intense experience for John and our family. While Julie and I were very impressed with the care John was given at Rush, we learned of the need for more specific psychiatric and transitional care directed towards young adults with autism and comorbid mental health problems.

After John was released and back at the “O” School, we founded the Julie + Michael Tracy Family Foundation and Urban Autism Solutions to help address challenges facing young adults with autism. Learning that the vast majority of this population lives at home with their parents and often don’t hold jobs and/or have meaningful lives outside the home, we set out to work with Rush University Medical Center to establish the Autism Assessment Research and Treatment Service Center (AARTS) with the goal of working with young adults on the Spectrum to achieve better outcomes.

Urban Autism Solutions is currently the only organization dedicated to providing wrap around solutions and a path to a fully integrated community life. We plan to create a series of residences for young adults with autism on the near West Side of Chicago. We just purchased our first residence that will house three young adults with autism. The building is in close proximity to Rush, allowing easy access to the Rush AARTS Center. With public transportation, the city is a much more livable place for those like John who will probably never drive. The neighborhood is conducive to walking, as is close not only to Rush but also to the University of Illinois at Chicago, the restaurant district surrounding Taylor Street in Little Italy and the West Loop neighborhood to the north. In the midst of so many businesses and in the shadow of the downtown, we know there may be more opportunities for meaningful employment for John. Finally, an urban setting, due to its diverse populations, might allow for “quirky” young men to “fit in” better.

Another initiative of our foundation is to develop social enterprise businesses to provide vocational opportunities for young adults with autism, as well as returning vets and others who need workforce development. This past summer, we launched a pilot community vocational garden, housed in the Illinois Medical District, just west of Rush. Our goal was to learn about urban gardening, health and nutrition and to create a viable path to greater economic independence for this vulnerable population. In addition to harvesting an abundance of produce, all indications of our initial research and assessment of the first year success of this pilot program are very positive. We are busy planning a major expansion for Year Two and we are exploring selling our produce to an  institutional partner and at a local farmer’s market.

The long-term goal of the JMTF and Urban Autism Solutions is to provide a safe and supported passage to a fully integrated community life. Through our initiatives of residential housing, groundbreaking research, vocational opportunities and an alliance with the Rush AARTS Center, we know we are creating viable opportunities and solutions for young adults and families with autism. To find out more about our foundation, go to



The Story of Luke : A Young Man’s Search for a Real Life (and he has autism)

A few days ago I posted my thoughts on Huffington Post  in regards to World Autism Awareness Day and the need for more acceptance and shared connections. Today, I urge you to see The Story of Luke, a movie about a young man with autism who is searching for a job and a girlfriend.  Today it is having its theatrical release in over 18 cities in the US and Canada. You can find it as well as on iTunes and major Cable On-Demand platforms.  But hurry, they have a goal of breaking into the list of the top 25 most watched movies in iTunes on their first weekend. Breaking into this list is how they can take this movie to a wider audience.

I’d like to suggest that you all see The Story of Luke and share it with your friends for the following reasons:

  • It’s a great story and a wonderful movie. Here’s the trailer.
  •  The depiction of Luke, a young man with autism who wants what all young men want, is excellent.
  • If you don’t know much about autism, this is a good movie to raise your awareness of what happens when they grow up. And April is the month to raise your awareness.
  • If you are involved with autism as a parent or a professional, this story will make you feel positive and hopeful.
  • It’s funny and endearing.
  • You know you have nothing good to watch at home tonight.
  • The movie stars Lou Taylor Pucci, Seth Green, Cary Elwes and Kristin Bauer.
  • It has  participated in over 20 film festivals and won 4 Best Film Awards and 5 Audience Awards.
  • Seth Green likes my glasses. I know, because he told me. (Just checking to see if you are still with me here).
  • We all need to support these small wonderful independent movies or our viewing choices will be limited to more reality TV or web shows. Believe me, that’s where talented filmmakers end up if they don’t bring in the big bucks with their indie movies.
  • Did I say it was a great movie?


Hire Autistic People; Here’s Why

Margaret Heffernan, blogger for for INC. interviewed me about autism and employment and wrote this blog post. You can read the original post and comments here.

Jeremy is autistic. He is also very bright, observant, and, it now appears, synesthesiac: he sees people, ideas, and feelings in colors. At first, his mother Chantal was skeptical–“I’m not, she said pointedly, from California; I’m from New York!” But she appreciated that Jeremy was being (as always) totally honest in what he told her and, when he said he wanted to start painting, she took him seriously, and encouraged him.

“He’s painting his dreams,” she says, “and people will pay for that. So often, he does advocacy for the autism community. He sits on taskforces. He has tested curriculum to teach life skills. He does conferences. He writes articles, and blogs for the United Nations. And, most of the time, people expect him to do this for nothing–or for coverage of his expenses. He is grateful for the opportunities. But he has a life, and a living to earn too. So the fact that people will pay for his painting: I’m all for that.”

Chantal Sicile-Kira is a leading authority on adolescent and early-adult autism. She’s written five books on the subject, the latest of which Jeremy co-authored. A passionate advocate for the autism community, she is adamant that autistic adults can and will be valued employees.

“Lots of people are pushed into academic qualifications and that’s fine,” she says. “But then the system breaks down after high school. It’s important for people on the autism spectrum to take an extra school year to learn life skills: self advocacy, relationships, organization. If they can do this, they can become employable. It’s utterly wrong that they should end up pushing shopping carts when, a year earlier they were getting high grades.”

As Jeremy writes in his blog, while “unemployment rates are frankly high for people in general, studies in the U.S. show it is greatly higher for those with autism. For example, the organization Easter Seals reported in a 2008 study that 22% of people with autism over the age of 16 have a paying job, compared to 75% of people who don’t have autism. This truth is that our differences make it difficult for employers, employment agencies, and job coaches to realize our capabilities and to offer specific recommendations based on our shared label. Belief in the ability of each person is necessary because judging us by neurotypical (ie “normal”) standards is not a real measure of our capacity for learning and being able to earn a living.”

The imminent arrival in the United States of Specialisterne has prompted a fresh debate about how to employ autistic talent. The Danish firm has pioneered finding meaningful roles for autistic people in Europe and now founder Thorkil Sonne hopes to do the same in America.

“It makes perfect sense,” says Sicile-Kira. “There are so many things that autistic people can do–and do well. For example, anything very repetitious and detail-oriented, work that requires great visual memory for the spotting of anomalies. You might not often think of someone with autism in terms of communication but they can be fantastic at understanding rules-bound communication, where it matters exactly what can and can’t be said to whom. Autistic people are very loyal, fastidious, and reliable. They are not going to come in late because they had too many tequila shots the night before.”

What’s key, she says, is to find (or to become) trusted intermediaries. That isn’t something that is unique to the autism community; after all, she says, she has a book keeper for her accounts. Jeremy is a wonderful painter but he needs someone to help with marketing; most actors have agents. What’s the difference?

I’ve known Chantal for a long time and have always been in awe of her astonishing energy and imagination. She’s proved a brilliant champion for the autistic community and never more so than now, when the first large generation of children, diagnosed correctly with autism, is about to graduate high school. She challenges all of us to think differently about who we might employ and how.

“It will be an economic failure if the new wave of high school graduates can’t be employed. All these kids have talent and ability and a tremendous capacity to contribute. We have to stop thinking that all employees have to be the same, with the same skills, the same attributes.”

Together We Can Create the Future We Want to See

We all know about the high rate of unemployment for people on the autism spectrum. Below is  a press release about a venture focused  on entrepreneurial solutions for adults with autism that is having it’s first session on Thursday, January 10th.

The Autism Entrepreneurs Center, run by LTO Ventures, is operating  in collaboration with the Achievement Vocational and Life Skills Academy, Grant-a-Gift Autism Foundation, Nevada Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Autism Entrepreneurs Center to Help Adults with Autism Start Up and Operate Real Businesses in Nevada

First Venture in the U.S. Focused on Entrepreneurial Solutions for the 90 Percent Unemployment Rate for Adults with Autism

HENDERSON, Nev., January 7, 2013 – LTO Ventures today announced the opening of itsAutism Entrepreneurs Center, first and only venture in the U.S. specifically established to help adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) start up and operate real for-profit businesses.  The first session of the Center will be held Thursday, January 10, 2013 from 2 to 4pm at the Autism Center of Southern Nevada, 72 N. Pecos Road, Suite C, Henderson, Nev.

LTO Ventures  is a 501(c)(3) non-profit company with headquarters inHenderson, Nev. that develops live/work/play communities for ASD adults.  LTO Ventures created the Autism Entrepreneurs Center to provide ASD adults the specific guidance, tools and resources they need to create, launch and operate their own real for-profit companies. LTO Ventures plans to pilot the program in Southern Nevada with the first-year goal of creating 12 new incorporated businesses and putting up to 100 ASD adults to work making minimum wage or better.

LTO Ventures also plans to create two related entities: 1) partnerships between ASD adults and typical adults to jointly launch and operate businesses; and, 2) a “business incubator” to encourage businesses created within the Center to share resources.

“Most vocational programs for ASD adults focus on convincing existing employers to hire them. We believe there are ASD adults who have great ideas and unique talents who would be more successful bringing their own ideas to fruition and working in settings created to foster their abilities,” said Mark L. Olson, President and CEO of LTO Ventures. “By giving ASD adults another choice for meaningful work, we are supporting self-determination in their employment outcome.”

“But like many typical individuals, ASD adults don’t know necessarily how or where to go to get started. Our Center proposes to pick up where job development support groups, short-term vocational training, and employment toolkits end, and provide the step-by-step guidance, tools and resources to create and operate real small businesses,” Olson said.

  •  Easter Seals published in 2011 the results of a study conducted in 2010 that found that only 11 percent of adults with disabilities work full-time, and only 32 percent have any kind of employment, compared to 48 percent of adults without disabilities working full-time and 74 percent working full-time, part-time, or self-employed.
  •  Easter Seals also reported that autism was the most prevalent disability — 62 percent of adults with disabilities in their study had some form of autism (Autism, Aspergers Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disability-Not Otherwise Specified, Rett’s Disorder)
  •  Autism Speaks, a leading advocacy organization for individuals with autism, in a 2012 Employment Think Tank, reported more than 500,000 children and teenagers with autism will reach adulthood in this decade and join the market for jobs, housing, and services.
  •  The California Senate Select Committee on Autism reported the average salary for those ASD adults who are employed is $4,824 annually.
  •  Unemployment in Nevada statewide is the highest in the U.S. at 10.8 percent for November 2012, the most recent reported month, and 10.4 percent in Las Vegas.

WHO SHOULD ATTEND:  ASD adults ages 18 and older, and their parents, family, caregivers and agency staff are invited to attend the Jan. 10 session. Anyone else interested in learning more about how to create businesses to employ ASD adults, or to help ASD adults start their own real businesses is encouraged to attend.  There is no cost for this session.

The Autism Entrepreneurs Center operates in collaboration with the Achievement Vocational and Life Skills Academy, Grant-a-Gift Autism Foundation, Nevada Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Conference Jan 11 &12: Adulthood on the Spectrum: Preparing for it—Living it

Here’s an opportunity to get educated about  Adulthood on the Spectrum: Preparing for It — Living It. The Greater Long Beach and San Gabriel Valley  ASA Winter 2013 Conference is  taking place on January 12 – 13th, 2013 at The Grand Event Center
4101 East Willow Street, Long Beach. For more information or to register contact Regina Moreno: (562) 237-1520, or visit their website.

Speakers presenting include: Brian R. King, Michael John Carley, Becky Tschirgi, Mary and Jerry Newport, Johnny Seitz, Chris Rials-Seitz M.A. , Sue Rubin, Jeremy and I among others.

Hope to see you there!

Creating Opportunities for Youths with Autism: The Autistry Studios

The last few months I’ve been traveling for speaking engagements and everywhere parents and educators are concerned about the future of their student or child. Whether it’s New York, Texas, Florida, California, Ohio, New Jersey or Maryland, there is concern: What will our youths do to earn a living when they transition out of school, and how can we best prepare them?

Starting today, as we head into the New Year, I would like to highlight on a regular basis people and organizations that are creating innovative opportunities for our young students to learn skills they can then apply to getting a job or earning money. I’ll also highlight those who are creating successful job and career opportunities for those on the spectrum.

If you have a story you would like to share, please send it in. We can all learn from each other.

Today I’m highlighting The Autistry Studios founded in 2008 with 4 students  by Janet Lawson and Dan Swearingen, the parents of Ian. When I wrote about them in the Social Relationships chapter  in  A Full Life with Autism (published in March 2012), they had about thirty students and workshops such as  a Build Stuff, Film, and Theater workshop. Now they have over 40 students.  Their mission was to provide a place where teens and young adults could create social relationships and develop skills based on their interests that could potentially lead to employment. Now, Autistry Sutdios’ next phase is to launch Autistry Enterprises, a manufacturing company creating unique works designed and made by Autistry students.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so watch this well-done ABC7 special. The Autistry Studios was recently  featured in their Profiles of Excellence.

Fell free to comment below, and don’t forget to send us your story of innovation!

Some More Thoughts on Autism and Employment from Readers

A few months back, I wrote a blog post on employment:  Autism and Employment: What are some barriers you or a loved one have encountered?  and people are still making comments on linked-in about it. Here are a few of them:

Posted by Barbara Bissonnette:  I think it is positive that there are more organizations adapting the Specialisterne model. Right now, the focus is on high tech, but I bet that will change. The numbers are so big, the topic of employment is finally on the radar screen.
This may at first sound counter-intuitive, but I think that networking is particularly important for those individuals who are seeking competitive (not sheltered or supported) employment. I am not talking about business mixers. I mean one-on-one networking, online, and strategic volunteering.
Individuals must be clear on their skills, and what jobs they qualify for. I find that literalness and difficulty seeing the big picture can create a lot of confusion. I’ve had clients who notice one or two key words, and believe that they match the job criteria. In reality, they are missing critical experience or knowledge.
Finally, a person needs a realistic job search plan. The individuals I see who are really struggling are basing their entire search on passively sending resumes in response to posted openings. This is the hardest way to get a job.
I encourage people to get involved in a hobby or other activity that puts them in touch with other people. This is also a job search strategy. Several of my clients found jobs through people they knew from hobby clubs or through their religious organizations.

Posted by Teresa Rios Van Dusen :  My son and I went to visit NonPareil Institute here in Plano, TX. They work with training and producing software just hiring people on the spectrum. They understand autism and they created a company that has all necessary accommodations for people on ASD. They have a firm believe that they can have commercial success by creating these accommodations, because the time they are productive make up for the time they need to refrain from working. They have flexible work hours, they have a very opened environment, they understand when an employee needs a time away, they provide the necessary tools for them to be productive. But the most important thing is that, as everyone their is on the spectrum, they are not judgmental about each other’s behavior.

Posted by David Hamilton : My daughter is 26 and works at home as a free lance grafic designer , and . In spite of her talent she cannot negotiate the nuero-typical world and so will never likely be accepted in an enviorment that does’nt understand the challenges of being autistic . “We” need our own culture or “sub”culture , i feel if this problem is ever going to be adequately resolved . A corporation for Aspie employment . Anything else is redundent . And like so many efforts directed toward children the aim is to make a neuro-typical individual become more “like us ” . We are not not you and that’s ok . Why don’t neuro-typicals design a protcal to become autistic . The bias is clear . Knowing this should be enough to convince most people we need our own identity and culture that supports acceptance not change .

Posted by Michael Rana II : One of the struggles that folks ‘on the spectrum’ face is that we’re looking for work in a neurotypical world. We also live in a world that demands change, whose structure changes on a daily basis. It’s like an epileptic going to a disco ball – they’d be out in 5 minutes.
I am one of the more fortunate Aspies, who grew up with change (I grew up military); for me, when something DOES NOT change, it bothers me. I know that when I change something (on my terms), it doesn’t bother me, but if someone changes my structure without a solid reason for it, it does bug me.   Teresa: “He has a hard time passing the recruitment screening in big companies, because usually they apply aptitude tests. ” – Most neurotypicals struggle with those because they’re ‘rigged for the house’. An Aspie that has no concept of social cues (and this would be one) would not realize that in order to pass that test, he or she would have to answer in a certain way. I could go into more detail, but it might be easier by email. My email address is on my profile, if you’d like to connect.



A Full Life with Autism at ASA

Jeremy and I are looking forward to co-presenting at the Autism Society of America’s  national conference this week in San Diego, our hometown! We’ll be talking about:  A Full Life with Autism: A Mother-Son Journey about Transitioning to Adulthood. 

Here is the description: Jeremy and Chantal explain each from their own perspective why the transition out of school district services is difficult and how parents can prepare themselves and their young adult for this life change. They share information they learned while researching to write A Full Life With Autism (Macmillan 2012). Practical advice includes how to assist the young adult in creating a self-determined life; how to create a circle of supports to help the person reach his/her goals over a lifetime.

Future Horizons will be selling our book, A Full Life with Autism, at their booth. Please stop by to say hello!

Why We do What We Do

Some days I wonder why I do what I do, and  at times Jeremy wonders if all the time and energy it takes him to write is worth it. So we are always happy to receive emails like the one below, from a dad, who is referring to our book A Full life with Autism.

“I am the parent of a 34 year old woman with high functioning autism.  I have started to read a number of books on ASD over the years and usually stopped – feeling overwhelmed @ about page 30.  But my daughter has sat alone in her room long enough.  Thanks particularly to Jeremy’s comments in the book and Chantal’s understanding and good explanation – I think we can do this.  I am buying the book for self and two adult siblings so we as a family as well as our daughter can begin to understand some steps to finally stop our avoidance and begin to develop a life of independence and quality for her.  THANK YOU!”


Autism and Employment: What are some barriers you or a loved one have encountered?

Do you have a story to share about yourself, or a loved one, or a student you know on the autism spectrum who is having a hard time finding or keeping a job?  What are the challenges to getting and  staying employed you have experienced?

My son, Jeremy, is writing a paper on the barriers to employment for someone with autism including Asperger’s Syndrome. He is looking for more personal stories to illustrate his paper.  Please, could you share your experience  by writing it in a comment to this blog?  You may stay anonymous if you wish.

In A Full Life with Autism, we wrote about employment among other topics and shared some practical and empowering advice from different sources.  Here, Jeremy is researching more about the barriers people have encountered.

Please leave your  stories, and pass this along to others who may have an experience to share.

Thank you for taking the time, and Jeremy will  write a blog here when the paper is finished.