By Oliver Thornton ’16
My older brother spoke his first words at 7 years old.
They went like this: “I wish that I could fly/Into the sky/So very high/Just like a dragonfly.”
You might recognize them as the lyrics to singer Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away.” Trinity listened to that song maybe a thousand times. When he formed those words he was singing in front of a mirror, probably unaware anyone was listening.
It was a beautiful day for my mom and dad. Mom was crying with joy and saying, “Trinity talked. Trinity talked.” The doctors had said that he probably never would.
Not long after Trinity’s diagnosis with autism at a young age, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (which is on the autism spectrum). Fifteen months younger than my brother, with autistic traits less pronounced than his, I was inspired by Trinity. His life taught me to embrace living with Asperger’s and to believe I could accomplish anything I put my mind to.
Our parents enrolled us in the same school. We took part in individualized education programs until we graduated high school, and I included Trinity in everything. My friend group became his. Trinity went on to earn a real estate license and is studying to go to architecture school.
As I began thinking of a career, I knew generally I wanted to improve the lives of individuals with autism. I considered going into the entertainment business and had an internship with a record company.
Then, in a capstone class during my last semester at Cal Lutheran, I received the assignment of developing a startup business to enter in the CLU New Venture Competition.
I researched issues affecting people on the spectrum to build out an initiative that met a real need.
One statistic set me on my path: Eighty percent of adults with autism — regardless of intelligence or academic achievement — are either unemployed or underemployed.
On the positive side, I discovered tech companies like SAP and Microsoft had autism hiring initiatives. Why? Because there is a positive correlation between stereotypical characteristics of a person on the autism spectrum and those of a successful software engineer. Beyond that, technology professions with average entry-level salaries of $40,000 a year have more job vacancies than any other industry in the United States.
Tech businesses want to ramp up hiring people on the spectrum, but individuals often are so poorly trained that elite companies simply can’t hire them. I wanted to build a business model around training and job placement for people with autism.
Everyone on the autism spectrum manifests differently, but we tend to prefer individualized attention in smaller groups. And in a traditional educational system, students have to learn every subject from biology to math to business to chemistry. People on the spectrum hyper-focus on a few things, and this can weed out autistic adults from graduation. But in the tech industry if someone has a skill set that is highly desired, they don’t need a Harvard degree or to graduate from a top UC school to get hired.
Knowing that, my cofounders and I designed a boot camp where students learn an entry-level coding skill set in a way specifically tailored to the autism demographic.
I pitched the company, Coding Autism, to 150 people at CLU’s New Venture Competition in April 2016. It took the top prize of $2,500 to go toward making this company a reality.
Since then I’ve given many talks to interest investors. As a kid, I had difficulty with speech and now I’ve trained myself to feel comfortable on a stage. It’s a practice-makes-perfect situation. We have raised $52,855 on our StartSomeGood crowdfunding campaign as well as roughly $47,000 through private investment.
In September, Coding Autism won the Crowd Invest Summit Pitch Competition in Los Angeles, our fifth competition victory. Later that month, we were one of 16 companies invited to pitch our ideas on improving brain health at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Solve Global Challenges competition at the United Nations. We didn’t win, but I plan to reapply in a more suitable category.
All this effort will yield real dividends when we launch our first cohort of students late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter of 2018.
I stay encouraged because parents of kids with autism call to say “you can change my son’s or daughter’s life.” That’s what lights my fuel and makes me want to dig in day in and day out. I’m also fortunate to have cofounders who are just as passionate as I am and who have skill sets I don’t have. Without Austen Weinhart and Andrea Vu Chasko, Coding Autism would not have reached the level of growth we have achieved.
Ultimately, I want Coding Autism to be the reason that the 80 percent under- and unemployed statistic begins to drop.
I firmly believe everyone on this planet has a specific purpose, and all of us have the potential to soar.
For more on Coding Autism, visit codingautism.com.