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Social Change Champion: Erika Gleeson

Erika Gleeson has always worked in the industry of ‘helping others’. As the founder of Autism Swim, the only business in Australia aimed solely at mitigating the associated risks of drowning for the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) population group, her life saving work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Erika was a finalist for Young Australian of the Year, Pride of Australia Award, and NSW Young Achievers Award. We sat down with Erika to learn more about her experience building a social enterprise, the lessons she’s learned along the way, and her plans for the future.

Tell us about your vision for Autism Swim and why you decided to start?

Autism Swim’s ‘why’ is very clear; we’re here to change the shocking and underreported drowning statistics in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); specifically, 90% of deaths in children with ASD are a result of drowning.

I’ve been a Behaviour Specialist in ASD for around a decade, and stumbled across these stats a few years ago; and from that, Autism Swim (AS) was born. It wasn’t a conscious business decision, more an instinctive reaction to a problem that I wanted to help solve.

Our approach at AS is to:
1. Educate and empower parents on wandering and drowning prevention
2. Support swimming instructors to establish successful aquatics programs (through a certification process); and
3. Teach these amazing children/individuals the skills they need to stay safe whilst having fun in the water.

What has been the highlight of your Autism Swim journey so far?

This journey has allowed me to see the absolute goodness in people. We’ve experienced an overwhelming amount of generosity from so many people; be it time, monetary or purely supportive/advisory. Not everyone gets to be a part of something where that is so incredibly evident, and this has undoubtedly been a highlight I didn’t anticipate.

I get to be part of something where the results are beyond rewarding and I’ve loved, and continue to love, every part of the journey.

If you were to start over, is there anything you would do differently?

I could write a novel on this one but looking back here are a couple of tips I would give to others just starting…

Connect early with other social enterprises; it can feel very lonely and isolating in the beginning, especially when everything is new or you find yourself learning from one mistake to the next. These networks offer a wealth of knowledge and support, and are filled with fantastic people.

Don’t try and be a hero; ask for help, in fact, go and seek it out. The reality is that many people genuinely and whole-heartedly WANT to help; empowering them to do so was an invaluable lesson that I learnt.

Where do you see the future of social enterprise in Australia?

I see a very exciting future, where initiatives like Autism Swim continue to prove that a commercial mind and a social heart CAN be combined to create fruitful for-purpose business.

I’m hopeful that we’ll start to see funding stipulations broadened to include social enterprise, and more of society’s problems being overcome through people channelling their skill-sets toward creating change and purpose.

What appeals most to you about Social Change Central?

When business ownership is overwhelming and you’re wearing multiple hats every day, having a one-stop-shop is a welcomed rainbow amongst the chaos. The fortnightly snapshots are really useful, and having the SCC crew (who truly ‘get’ social enterprise) as part of the overall support network is very reassuring.

The Social Change Central change maker community is growing at a fast rate. How can our members learn more about you and help support your organisation (e.g. are you looking for funding, PR, marketing support, volunteers, interns)?

You can read all about Autism Swim on our website:

The main priorities for us right now are funding, creating strong partnerships, finding the right brand ambassador, recruiting interns and building our first advisory board. You can see all open opportunities on our website along with our regularly updated blog.

And finally, what would you do if you found a lottery ticket that ended up winning $10 million?

I’d take off to the Galapagos for three weeks, to dive with hammerheads and clear my mind so that I can then come back, expand the team, and focus on all of the following…

Firstly, how do we reach every single parent of a child with ASD/cognitive deficit in Australia? Considering the high-risk status of their children, we believe every parent should be receiving expert advice and support regarding wandering and drowning prevention. Not only that, but every swimming instructor teaching an aquatics program to children with ASD/cognitive deficit, should be qualified and supported to do so.

Secondly, how can we better use technology to help tackle the issue? We’re already exploring some really cool ideas, and would love to do this with much more gusto.

Thirdly, how we can make Autism Swim more global, as this problem exists all over the world?

Lastly, opening up our own pools all over the country, so we can create the perfect environments for our participants to learn and thrive; and our AS-Approved Instructors to work their magic in the water.

Are you a Social Change Champion? Want to be interviewed? Join as a Gold Member.

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