Growing up with autism inspired Adam Harris to set up AsIAm, to give autistic people a voice in a conversation on understanding, awareness and inclusion of neurodiversity. ThinkBusiness talks to him about his quest to make Irish businesses and society truly autism-friendly.

Why did you set up AsIAm?

While we have become more aware of autism, there wasn’t a good understanding of the condition and society wasn’t accessible for autistic people. We talk a lot about accessibility for physically disabled people but for people with autism there are invisible barriers, in terms of the sensory environment, how we communicate, a person’s ability to know what’s going to happen next and people’s attitude.

I set up the organisation to try and change the narrative around autism, to give autistic people a voice but also to work with businesses and organisations to give them the tools to be more accessible.

While we have become more aware of autism, there wasn’t a good understanding of the condition and society wasn’t accessible for autistic people

What does AsIAm do?

There is a team of 14 and half of us are on the autism spectrum. Our aim is to create an autism friendly Ireland using a couple of key ingredients.

One is community support – ensuring that the autism community is empowered and supported, to advocate and participate – we provide guidance through our community support service, information on our website, support events around the country, we issued national ID cards and engage in campaigns and awareness raising.

There is the risk with our type of organisation that you end up speaking to the converted all the time. Our partnership with Supervalu mainstreamed it

What makes AsIAm unique?

The social enterprise arm of our organisation – we try to remove the accessibility barriers autistic people face by supporting businesses to look at their own practices and identify where they could remove those barriers.

We do this in a number of ways – we provide training and accreditation for organisations to reach autism friendly standards. We partner with thought leaders in specific sectors to develop autism friendly frameworks. Examples include our partnership with Supervalu, which saw the role out of autism friendly shopping across the country and the establishment of Ireland’s first autism friendly town – Clonakilty, which we are now rolling out to 13 other towns. We also developed a framework for universities to become autism friendly.

In the past charities and government organisations could take a long time to make changes. We’re a very nimble organisation, able to respond quickly to craft solutions that work. 

We try to remove the accessibility barriers autistic people face by supporting businesses to look at their own practices and identify where they could remove those barriers

What does it mean to be autism-friendly?

Being autism friendly is not a box ticking exercise, it has to have meaning. We have taken the term ‘autism friendly’ in different settings and explored what that means in a transparent way. It requires consulting with the autism community directly about their experience of using a service or business and crafting solutions that work in that setting. 

“We have taken the term ‘autism-friendly’ in different settings and explored what that means in a transparent way”

It might mean training employees on how to interact effectively with people with autism and their families, improving the sensory environment, such as quiet time or incorporating a quiet space into your business. It might be developing materials to prepare an autistic person for their first visit to a setting, so they know what to expect and educating everyone who uses the space about autism. Autism friendly means different things in different contexts. We support businesses and organisations to define those measures relevant to the context they are in and the level of interaction they have with people with autism and their families. 

What were some of the challenges of setting up AsIAm and how did you overcome them?

I was 18 when I set up the organisation. When you’re a teenager with ideas, not many people take you seriously. Securing the support and buy-in to get the idea off the ground was a challenge. I was really lucky to meet some incredible supporters who helped set up our board of directors and provide funding. But it was a lot of work and effort. 

There is a challenge for charitable organisations in Ireland to get the multiple year funding they need to develop the organisation and have an ability to be strategic.

Where did you get support and how did it impact the organisation?

The first organisation to back us in a big way was Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. It’s the only organisation in that space where you can go with an early stage idea and get the funding and expertise to get it off the ground.

There is a challenge for charitable organisations in Ireland to get the multiple year funding they need to develop the organisation and have an ability to be strategic

Going through the SEI process has not only brought the much-needed funding but also put us in a place where others were in a position to support us. That support has been invaluable. Today we’re an impact partner with SEI, enabling us to scale. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.

I also got a lot of support from the community I lived in. Before we got to a national level, people locally believed in the idea and provided the seed funding to get the initial steps in place. Securing government funding was critical. We are lucky to be supported by the Ireland Funds. One of the greatest catalysts of us going from an organisation with a big idea but not a lot of resources was our partnership with Supervalu. 

There is the risk with our type of organisation to end up speaking to the converted all the time. Our partnership with Supervalu mainstreamed it. It also served as a demonstration project – a big organisation like Supervalu was able to implement changes and confirm they helped make their business accessible and appealing to lots of people. It had a big impact on changing the discussion, in terms of our reach but also to challenge other businesses to change the way they were thinking about autism.

Do you have any advice for people setting up a social enterprise?

One of the things I would say to people is if you have an idea, pursue it vigorously. For the first 18 months of setting up, I travelled the country on public transport, engaging directly with communities of autistic people and family members, who have often never been asked their opinion.

Autism-friendly means different things in different contexts. We support businesses and organisations to define those measures relevant to the context they are in and the level of interaction they have with people with autism and their families

That’s the juice that’s enabled AsIAm to approach the issue differently and to have broad buy-in across the country.  There’s no substitute for that graft and reaching out to the community.

As you set up a social enterprise, you make a million mistakes, what’s important is having the ability to identify them and change how you operate.

It is very easy to engage in burnout when nothing has been done in your space before. There is a tendency to try and solve every problem immediately but over time you think in a more strategic way. Of course, you want to work in every sector and have an impact in every aspect of Irish life but it is important to think about how to do that in a smarter way, to have a bigger impact with small resources.

What do you think the culture in Ireland is like for setting up a social enterprise and what could be improved on?

There’s a lot of work to be done. Our business models in Ireland don’t encourage social enterprise. There is support for people setting up businesses but we don’t always provide the same level of support, guidance and assistance to people who have ideas on how to address big social problems.

Only a small number of agencies focus on support in this area and a lot of those big foundations have closed, leading to challenges in securing funding. We would like to see the government engaging a lot more with socially minded companies. We need a social enterprise strategy because social enterprises and charities are major employers and have the ability to respond quickly to social problems in a way that the state doesn’t. 

Interview by Olivia McGill

Published: 5 March, 2020

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