In 1999 when I was born, my brother and best friend, Vikram, was seven year old and had not yet spoken a word. My parents love for my brother and I has been unwavering for my whole life, despite the festering fear in the back of their minds:
Is this world a safe place for my child? Who will take care of my autistic son once I pass? How can he live independently and participate meaningfully in society if he is so reliant on us for basic tasks (like brushing his teeth)?
And as the sister of Vikram (who was diagnosed “nonverbal autistic” when he was 3), at a young age I had a huge responsibility placed on me to ensure that I had the mentality growing up that I was not just taking care of myself, but would one day have to take care of my brother as well. And I also realized how he was so lucky to have me, because not a lot of autistics individuals have siblings or loved ones who wouldn’t abandon them because of how “burdensome” they may seem.
I can validate that my experiences with my brother have been the most enlightening, enriching ones. Because of his disability, he has experienced the deepest form of pain and marginalization, because he is not only isolated in society, his thoughts are isolated in his own body, with no way to translate into coherent language- it’s like trying to speak in a foreign country. Yet, a lifetime of trying to make sense of his unique language has given me my biggest gift- the power of empathy. This insight has shown me the infinite capacity to embody the purest forms of love, that he has gained from his years as merely a spectator of this planet. While we are all hustling and bustling to live each day with schedules, goals, setbacks and failures, I always feel as though he is silently watching the condition of mankind. From a boy who has no ability to speak the thoughts that consume him every day, I learned how grateful to be to have a voice. A voice that drove me to speak at TEDx Georgia Tech about how technology transformed the way my brother could function independently and helped us connect on a platform and in a language and on a platform that he had accessibility to.
Yet, not everyone has the chance to interact with someone with a disability and learn about all of their resilience and struggle their own bodies impede them with-because they are often silenced and put in the back of the classroom. They are kept out of our schools and public systems because they are too “noisy”. They are made fun of for their differences that may stem from the inability to fully control their own bodies. They are discriminated against in the workplace because of their odd behaviour. They are isolated in homes where they don’t have meaningful interaction with the world. As a user researcher by profession, and aspiring entrepreneur by passion, I asked myself: Why should these individuals be shut out of our systems when they have so much latent potential to offer to the world? How can we leverage the ubiquity of technology to create those connections, and start a movement towards creating an empathetic world? A world where we learn from each other’s differences, strengths and weaknesses, and not take for granted the ability that we are each endowed with? Thankfully, companies like Microsoft are already getting there thanks to visionaries like Satya Nadella.
After months of interviewing and sitting down and talking to families, autistic self advocates, faculty members, employers and parents, we have finally found our “product-market fit” (what our courses at ATDC empathized as the key). So what is our first project? We want to create an app called “EnlightenMentors” that connects autistic individuals with neurotypical volunteers, to facilitate a partnership of growth. The app’s algorithm intelligently matches individuals with autism to domain-specific volunteers to facilitate individualized training in specific areas for growth. This is done by identifying complementary skill sets, personal goals, teaching styles and characteristics of diagnosis.
Leveraging artificial intelligence, our service learns from successful mentor and mentee pairings in the past to improve the automated process for new users, finding mutually beneficial partnerships based on the data we gather. Once the mentees select their mentors from the intelligent suggestions, the app curates activities to take both users through a step-by-step series of meetings. From prompting conversations around workplace demeanor, interview behavior, fundamental soft-skills, and actionable steps towards writing a resume, discovering positions, and showcasing their strengths in an interview, EnlightenMentor facilitates mentees towards finding meaningful employment.
Eventually, our long term vision is to become a recruiting pipeline for disability inclusivity, to ensure that employers are more accessible to, and understanding of, and welcoming to applicants with autism. Our goal is to show that by giving individuals with autism a chance, many employers will discover that those on the spectrum have their own unique strengths. These skills range from analytical tasks involving data, spreadsheets, and coding, to solving complex challenges through visual thinking tactics – and we believe the digital age of modern computing technology will become a great equalizer to facilitate developing these talents.
Hence, we hope to improve circumstances for:
- Autistic Individuals – with the capability to participate meaningfully in the workforce
- Parents – who worry about their child’s ability to support living independently after outgrowing traditional educational systems
- Volunteers – college students or trained professionals who want to contribute their skill sets to making a difference in this community
- Companies – There is a huge gap in the job market as it fails to leverage the strengths of autistics and connect them with employers, who stand to benefit financially even after the cost of accommodations is considered. A recent study by Accenture shows that companies that improve disability inclusion are 4 times more likely to get shareholder’s returns
- The US economy – Our research shows that this doesn’t have an impact on just families, it also affects the entire economy – costing governments $268 billion and is predicted to rise to $460 billion by 2025- most of which is going towards residential care and accommodation
By teaming up with Autism Self-Advocacy Atlanta, Atlanta Autism Consortium, Georgia Tech’s Excel program and working with hiring programs at companies like Anthem Healthcare, we want to work alongside individuals with autism to design our app by involving our target users since day one in the ideation process of this very proposal – highlighting both their pain points and intellectual abilities.
We have created design workshops, where our user experience designers and researchers are working alongside members of Autism Self Advocacy group to tailor the user experience of our service to the unique needs of this user base – and we believe that incorporating their feedback in at iterative, agile process is essential. Today we already have gathered support from volunteer developers in India and the Bay Area who believe in our cause (though we are always seeking more!) and are able to begin work towards creating a functional MVP. As we design, develop and beta test the first version of our app with the Excel group, we are also on a search for investment opportunities as we are currently funding this project from our pockets.
In order to ensure we are having everyone’s voices heard and support received, we are launching a GoFundMe because this app is: For the people, by the people. If you would like to support in any way possible — do sign up here and we will email you with milestones as we approach our official launch!