Employment program for autistic youth seeks financial sustainability

· The Pulse

Autism CanTech! has won accolades for its efforts to help neurodiverse youth find meaningful employment. Now it needs to find the money to continue that work after its funding runs out in less than a year.

The made-in-Edmonton training program provides autistic learners between the ages of 18 and 30 with entry-level skills for the digital economy. Employers providing work experience get the opportunity to tap into the talents of these workers while enhancing accessibility and inclusion in their workplaces. It is based at NorQuest College but also delivers programming at Douglas College in Vancouver and Humber College in Toronto. About 60 students are currently pursuing training and experience in data analytics, digital asset management, and audio post-production.

The program is a way to address high rates of unemployment and underemployment in this population. But it's also a way to help employers improve and diversify their talent pool, Autism CanTech! manager Jenna Gauthier told Taproot's Bloom podcast.

"These are ... skilled young adults with a lot to give to any work environment," she said. "What the research speaks to is that bringing diversity of thought into your workplace actually produces higher-performing teams."

Autism CanTech! won a social innovation award for programs promoting neurodiversity inclusion at the 2022 ASTech Awards. The program was also one of eight around the world to receive the Higher Ed XR Innovation Grant from Unity Social Impact and Meta Immersive Learning to explore adding extended-reality training to its suite by adapting educator resources and XR courses for a neurodiverse audience. Gauthier spoke on a panel at the Unity for Humanity Summit earlier this month.

Such honours are great recognition for the team, Gauthier said. But what Autism CanTech! needs now is sustainable funding for the future. It got started with a grant from the federal Youth Employment and Skills Strategy, but that runs out next fall.

"We are working very diligently as a team on a broader sustainability plan to make sure that we have the funds required to continue to operate our program in September 2023, because we really want to continue to build on this work and serve these learners," Gauthier said, noting that the future funding model likely involves a mix of grants, philanthropy, and social enterprise.

"If people want to help us with that dream, they can absolutely talk to us now. As we know, having these kinds of discussions always takes time, and it's better to plan ahead and be able to work to operationalize things before you're down to the wire."

Six happy people stand in front of an ASTech Awards banner, two of them holding award plaques

The Autism CanTech! team from NorQuest College was honoured at the 2022 ASTech Awards on Nov. 4. Manager Jenna Gauthier is second from the right. (LinkedIn)

The program is also on the lookout for employer-partners to provide work experience for the students. It has posted positive testimonials from ATB Financial and Iron Mountain, and is eager to find more placements.

"If they have the desire to hire inclusively, and want to learn more, and they're open to working with us, they're ideal," Gauthier said. "Our team will provide support, and it's free of charge for the duration of the grant. So it's a good time to jump on that offer."

Autism CanTech! is fully subscribed on the learner side right now, but if you or someone you know is interested in enrolling, there is an expression of interest form to get in line for the next intake.

The perspectives and voices of people with autism are integrated into the program every step of the way, Gauthier said.

"Our program is providing the opportunity — for many the first opportunity — for purely autistic voices to be heard in a class environment, and for those to be responded to in a really meaningful way."

Gauthier has a nephew with autism who has made it to university but not without struggles. "It's a huge driving force for me, just to make sure that future generations ... aren't experiencing those same barriers in the same way," she said.

Edmonton has been a great place to build that kind of solution, she added.

"The way I feel about Edmonton is that we tend to be innovators," she said. "There's a lot of creativity and entrepreneurship in this space right now. So it's an ideal location."

Learn more about Autism CanTech! and Technology North, which is working on solving similar problems, in Episode 38 of Bloom, Taproot's podcast about innovation in Edmonton.