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Autistic Businesses Are Social Enterprises

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Throughout history, there have been moments in time when a large group of individuals that share a common identity have demanded the recognition of their basic human rights. We have seen this with the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Gay Liberation Movement. It is now that moment in time for the Neurodiversity Movement. As a part of this movement, a transition is occurring from thinking about autism solely in terms of deficits, to recognising the unique strengths and abilities of autistic individuals. Acknowledging autistic strengths and abilities by supporting neurodiversity-affirming autistic owned and led enterprises can play an important role in advancing the Neurodiversity Movement.

The autistic deficit worldview

Since its inception, autism has been described in terms of deficits. When the term was first coined back in 1911, autism was thought to be a psychiatric disorder. Since the 1970s it has predominantly been described as a range of cognitive deficiencies. This entirely deficit view of autism underpins the current autism diagnosis process. At no time during the diagnosis process are autistic strengths and abilities considered.

This constant focus on autistic individuals being deficient and the daily struggle autistic individuals face trying to fit into a world that was designed for people with a different brain type, has had devastating implications for autistic people. The life expectancy of autistic individuals is only 39 years[i], and they are seven times more likely to die by suicide than non-autistic people[ii]. Research has shown that a significant contributing factor to the suicidal thoughts of autistic individuals is the defeat and entrapment they constantly feel from having to mask their autistic traits in order to fit into the neurotypical world[iii].

Employment is often a challenge for autistic individuals. In Australia, the unemployment rate for autistic individuals is 34.1 per cent, which is more than three times the rate for people with disability[iv]. In order to make workplaces more autistic friendly, the recommended approach is for employers to be persuaded to make workplace adjustments. Unfortunately, research has shown that the process of having to negotiate workplace adjustments with an employer can have a detrimental impact on an autistic individual’s wellbeing[v].

While many autistic people face economic exclusion and live below the poverty line for their entire life, at the other financial extreme a multi-billion dollar a year autism industry has been created that addresses the deficiencies that are associated with autism[vi]. This positioning of autistic individuals as a commodity within a lucrative industry, makes the transitioning of society’s views from autistic people being deficient to recognising that autistic individuals have unique skills and strengths particularly challenging.

The neurodiversity-affirming paradigm shift

Despite this challenge, an alternative neurodiversity-affirming view of autism that acknowledges autistic strengths and abilities is gathering momentum. Neurodiversity recognises that human brains can be wired in a variety of different ways with none of them being inherently superior. From this neurodiversity-affirming perspective, autistic brains are considered to function differently to the average human brain type, but they are not deficient. While autistic individuals still face many challenges due to living a world where just about everything has been designed for people with a different brain type, using a neurodiversity-affirming lens enables the unique strengths and abilities of autistic cognition to also be acknowledged.

Central to a neurodiversity-affirming view of autistic cognition, is the concept of monotropism. Monotropism is the tendency of autistic individuals to passionately focus on one or a narrow number of interest areas with a high level of concentration that results in their having extensive knowledge and skill and a huge dataset of facts and concepts related to their interest areas. Unlike non-autistic individuals who are generally top-down thinkers, autistic individuals are usually bottom-up and associative thinkers which enables new ideas and innovations to emerge as they spot patterns amongst the detail in their datasets. Autistic individuals are also recognised as natural systemisers – they systemise the associations that they identify in their datasets in order to understand how things can work in practice.

Supporting autistic social entrepreneurship

In Australia, the potential of autistic businesses and social enterprises to address autistic unemployment is being recognised by governments. Business ownership and entrepreneurship has been recognised by the Victorian Government as a way for autistic individuals to achieve economic independence[vii] and last year the Australian Senate Select Committee Inquiry on Autism highlighted the opportunity to address autistic unemployment by supporting the creation of autistic owned and led social enterprise[viii].

By their very existence, neurodiversity-affirming autistic owned and led businesses can be considered social enterprises as these businesses create social outcomes that go well beyond just benefiting an autistic founder. Through their very existence, these businesses challenge the prevailing deficit perception of autistic cognition and increase society’s understanding that autistic cognition is different but by no means less. In addition, the existence of these businesses reframes how to address autistic unemployment from the current expectation that employers will make the necessary accommodations for autistic individuals, to enabling and supporting autistic individuals to design and control their own work environment.

If we are to address the pressing social and environmental challenges that the world faces, we desperately need new ways of thinking, and autistic individuals innately think differently. Many autistic individuals are also passionate about creating systems change towards greater equality, fairness, and social justice[ix]. In recent years, we have witnessed this monotropic passion through the work of autistic changemakers such as Grace Tame and Gretta Thunberg.

It is an exciting time for the emerging Australian autistic social entrepreneurship movement. With both the Australian and South Australian governments developing autism strategies, we have a policy window to harness support for a neurodiversity-affirming approach and autistic owned and led social enterprise. This is our Movements moment in time!

Sharon Zivkovic has been working with diverse community stakeholders on community capacity building and systems change projects for nearly 25 years. In 2001, she received an Enterprising Woman of the Year Award in recognition of her work in supporting communities to become more enterprising by taking advantage of their communal strengths. Sharon is the Founder and CEO of the social enterprise Community Capacity Builders which has been delivering community leadership and systems social entrepreneurship programs since 2004. Community Capacity Builders has recently established a Centre for Autistic Social Entrepreneurship that is developing initiatives to build the capacity of disability service providers, social enterprise support organisations, and business advisors to provide services to autistic social entrepreneurs in a neurodiversity affirming manner. Sharon is proudly autistic.
[i] Smith DaWalt L, Hong J, Greenberg JS, Mailick MR. (2019). Mortality in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: Predictors over a 20-year period. Autism. 23(7):1732-1739.
[ii] Jachyra P., Rodgers, J. & Cassidy, S. (2022, April 1). Autistic people are six times more likely to attempt suicide – poor mental health support may be to blame. The Conversation.
[iii] Cassidy, S., McLaughlin, E., McGranaghan, R., Pelton, M., O’Connor, R., & Rodgers, J. (2023). Is camouflaging autistic traits associated with defeat, entrapment, and lifetime suicidal thoughts? Expanding the Integrated Motivational Volitional Model of Suicide. Suicide and Life?Threatening Behavior.
[iv] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018), Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from
[v] Foster, D. (2007). Legal obligation or personal lottery? Employee experiences of disability and the negotiation of adjustments in the public sector workplace. Work, employment and society, 21(1), 67-84.
[vi] Broderick, A. A. (2022). The autism industrial complex: How branding, marketing, and capital investment turned autism into big business. Myers Education Press
[vii] Victoria State Government (2019). Victorian Autism Plan.
[viii] Senate Select Committee on Autism Inquiry (2022). Services, support and life outcomes for autistic Australians.
[ix] Baron-Cohen, S. (2013). Empathy deficits in autism and psychopaths: Mirror opposite. In Banaji, M. R., & Gelman, S. A. (Eds.), Navigating the social world: What infants, children, and other species can teach us (pp. 212-15). Oxford University Press.
Jay Boolkin
Jay Boolkin

I'm passionate about positive social change and the power of social entrepreneurship to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. I believe that for-purpose business models can become part of the mainstream and I am enthusiastic about advocating for business models that are genuinely built around a social or environmental mission.

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