When the Awesome Company started printing in 2016, every t-shirt, bag, and pillow celebrated the word “awesome.” And while the brand’s mission was to celebrate the “small things” with positivity and simplicity, the company’s mission of employing adults on the autism spectrum showed to be equally as important.
“Ninety percent of people with autism are either unemployed or underemployed, so there’s a lot of people, a whole community of people, that are sitting around with no work,” says Jacquie Mahan, an “autism mom” and The Awesome Company’s founder and CEO. “It’s a very simple equation. It’s a simple, powerful mission.”
The company found success, but both goals began to hit a wall. In its stagnation, The Awesome Company decided that expanding to become a general screen-printing company would relieve its growing pains. This meant fulfilling more orders, and naturally, hiring more employees.
“It’s not about the word awesome, it’s about being awesome,” Mahan says. “And to me, being awesome is employing adults with autism.”
Now, The Awesome Company employs eight adults with autism as more orders come in and customers spread the word. In some ways, the enthusiasm can likely be attributed to the connection the company strives to build with its customers, some of which have relatives with autism themselves. Mahan mentions how employees will include hand-written notes thanking customers for their business and helping them “secure a job that they love,” and how she hopes more businesses will make a point of building closer relationships with customers. It’s important for all types of people to connect with one another, she says.
“You can buy a shirt online, you can get it for pretty cheap, and you can have it sent to your house in a box. You don’t really have to interact with anybody,” she says. “What I’m lacking is connecting to people, and our company is providing that.”
The Awesome Company’s approach to its employees is unprecedented as well. The company has shown to be dedicated to long-lasting employment and investing time and money into their employees with an internship program that provides students on the autism spectrum the opportunity to gain work experience. The company works with Bridgeway Academy, a non-profit organization and homeschool academy, and career and job coaching programs like MAX Interpersonal Career Coaching (through Jewish Family Services), so that students who age out of the special education system can practice and gain experience with The Awesome Company before entering the workforce. The internship can even lead to a job, which it often does.
Mahan makes a point in showing compassion and a positive attitude to employees, who have often counted themselves out before their first day. She has seen employees who started off stressed and anxious shake hands, make friends, and become much more secure and comfortable in a place where they’re needed and respected.
And unlike the demands at traditional companies, she doesn’t push or penalize employees for lack of speed. Some workstations give visual cues and instructions for certain tasks, but employees are largely given space to do their job. No two people with autism are the same, she says, so the tools each employee needs to succeed may look different. But people with autism aren’t unemployable by any means.
“The problem is not capabilities, or the willingness to work, it’s that there aren’t a lot of environments that are conducive to the autism brain,” Mahan says. “What I’ve learned is we need more people to give people with autism more time to learn, to be more flexible, to switch the norm and change it up.”
The Awesome Company is now in a great position to continue its central mission, and educate other people and their businesses about employing people with autism along the way. They’re planning an open house for the spring of 2019, after the team gets through the holiday rush. It’ll provide an opportunity for customers to see the screen-printing studio, meet employees, and discuss neurodiversity in the workplace. “It’s respecting different brains, and how they function, and how they work, and finding a place where all of those minds can melt together,” Mahan says.
In the meantime, Mahan says the company will stick to selling t-shirts and recruiting people for employment. There are a lot of very smart people out there without work, and she wants to continue providing a place where people like her son can safely gain experience and make decent a living.
“My son’s lucky because he’s high-functioning, and he probably won’t have a hard time finding a job,” she says. “But maybe he will, and I want him to have a place to go to, and a place that he can be proud of himself.”