aspensConsider an autistic person who hasn’t been able to hold a job. One common but ineffective approach is to treat it as if the person just lacks training, and the thinking goes: if they are given enough training and coaching, they will normalize enough to be independent, ideally becoming “indistinguishable from peers”. This can be ineffective because the real reason for not being able to hold a job may be missed. The issue of training is not necessarily the main or only issue that is a barrier. Sensory issues or needs for a predictable environment (for example) are common in people diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s, and those factors can’t be trained away.

Another related approach is to place the person in a permanently supported job, sometimes in institutional settings and sometimes underpaid or volunteer work, in which a group of disabled workers is supervised by non-disabled managers. This can turn the person against themselves and be demoralizing, even accentuating disability. When a person believes their natural way of being is defective, they get on a self-limiting or destructive path and don’t reach their potential.

The third approach is thinking about the problems with the work environmentinstead of thinking of the person as defective. An effective job placement professional can sometimes create a job instead of finding one, or help develop a person’s strengths into a business. Ocate Cliffs takes this approach. The non-profit business model is about autistic people collaboratively creating our own workspace, fitting the roles to our strengths, and getting paid for it.

How will we get paid?

Retreat centers are a big income potential. The 30-bed houses should each be able to rent for $1200-1800 per day ($40-60 per person). There are lots of other retreat centers that charge much more than that. There’s a need for larger facilities like this one – most facilities sleep fewer people, and there are only about three other rural retreats in New Mexico in this size range.

Once we are built out for our initial 60-person capacity, we’ll be making enough money to cover staff expenses. So unlike most programs, a gift to this program creates a self-sufficient non-profit activity, which can even be a cash-generator for other projects. If we show sufficiently low water use in practice, we will be able to increase capacity further and improve the economics.

We won’t be paying utility bills, since we’ll be energy self-sufficient. Gifts supporting the solar electric panels, solar water heating, solar evaporating toilets, and solar ovens are gifts that keep on giving by harnessing free power from the sun. And they not only provide ongoing energy, but they provide ongoing education to the thousands of guests coming through about renewables.

When we ask questions like “how much does autism cost”, we’re asking the wrong question. We should be asking how much we can contribute. And that’s how we look at this project – as a way to create virtuous cycles in the economic system that keep on giving and keep on engaging.

The plan for capital

Our tentative plan for paying for the building construction is in three parts:

  • First, a relatively small foundation grant or private angel donation will allow us to bring the initial volunteer builders together under the direction of a licensed contractor, and build part of the staff house. This will be built in a well-orchestrated compact work camp format of about two weeks. The grant will cover food and some travel, insurance, and some activities of overseeing the project, as well as the builder’s time. Materials will be donated. We’ll video this experience and use social media to ripple the publicity effect from all the people involved to their contacts, in order to make a splash. Once this is built, people can use the land for retreats on a tenting basis.
  • Second, we’ll use the video and publicity gained from the work camp to crowdfund the capital for the staff house. The staff house will double as the store-front and quarters for an off season caretaker. Once that is in place, we can provide indoor cooking, storage, and everything needed for serving larger groups.
  • Third, with the successful crowdfunding showing our relevancy to the autistic community, we’ll approach foundations for a sustaining grant that will take us through construction of at least the first guest house. That grant in addition to some rental income and possibly more crowdfunding will get the guest house built and fund some of the organizational and operating costs like marketing. Then, there will be income from guest rentals.

In addition to the above, there is income potential from at least two other sources: (1) We could perform credentialed research and publishing, at some point. (2) We could act as the services agency that provides disability support benefiting some of the staff. This income would come through sources such as Medicaid and other insurance, and existing State sources. We could provide specific programs other than employment that might be supported in this way.

Replicating the model

This place is a creative answer to the specific interests and abilities of the founder and our initial family of buiders. We are not recommending building retreat centers all over; instead, other autistic employment solutions will be based on other people, and therefore will be very different kinds of businesses.