By Karen Unland
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."