High school students work on behalf of those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
In the United States, 1 in 54 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Unemployment rates for individuals with ASD are approximately 85%. More than half a million individuals with ASD will enter the workforce in the next decade. The need for specialized vocational training is growing by the minute.
A CDC study found that 50 percent of children with severe ASD only have access to school-based treatment services. And 17 percent of children with ASD do not have access to occupational, speech, or language therapy whatsoever.
At-home therapy is difficult for those with special needs, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. With most in-person therapy sessions closed, many parents of children with ASD don’t have the proper material and guidance to provide effective at-home therapy.
Meet Isabella He
Isabella He is a high school junior at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, CA, and the founder and President of SN Inclusion. SN Inclusion is a nonprofit organization that provides career-technical education to neurodiverse individuals. She is also a co-founder of AUesome, a social enterprise that offers at-home therapy kits to children with autism.
Isabella is also an intern at the Stanford Neurodiversity Project and a dedicated volunteer and program coordinator at Friends of Children with Special Needs (FCSN).
Other AUesome co-founders include fellow high school students Anshul Gupta, Andrew Kim, and Arnav Gurudatt.
Why Isabella He cares about neurodiversity.
Isabella first learned about the needs of children on the Autism spectrum when she volunteered with Friends of Children with Special Needs. “Since then, I’ve been dedicating my activities and spare time to the neurodiverse community,” Isabella explains.
“Through my close interaction with these children and their families, I have developed a passion for neurodiversity advocacy. I have a mission. I want to bridge the gap in employment, education, and life support to contribute to an inclusive society in all aspects — race, gender, ethnicity, and neurodiversity.”
When her family moved to China, Isabella landed an internship at Chengdu’s Hospital for Women and Children’s Autism Intervention Program. There, she worked alongside doctors, nurses, and therapists. “I could see that therapy was so useful for these children. I could see the children becoming comfortable with their fine motor skills, following directions, and forming bonds with other children in the group. Yet therapy was also limited.”
Families saved money for months to attend the six-week program. They traveled long hours to be there. And yet, after the program, many parents were lost on what to do at home.
“At-home therapy is necessary for children with autism to live wonderful and rewarding lives. Yet, only a privileged few can afford to spend over $125 per session for an at-home therapist.”
Even for those who managed to gain skills, the prospects for employment were grim.
“Employment opportunities are few and far between for neurodiverse individuals. That’s due in part to perpetuating stigmas, unaccommodating hiring processes, and unwelcoming workplace environments.
“After listening to neurodiverse employees and prospective employees and their challenges with workplace inclusion, I set out to provide a solution through social entrepreneurship.”
Isabella’s first steps on the journey
During Isabella’s internship at the Chengdu hospital, she met a 4-year-old boy Chonghao, with an autism spectrum disorder. The family paid $5,800 for Chonghao to attend the program, but it was not enough for him to participate in public school.
“Chonghao lives in Aba Zhou, the rural, poor area of Sichuan, China. It is more than six hours away from the nearest city.”
Isabella started a fundraiser for Chonghao.
“My goal was to fund his attendance to another 4-6 week therapy program. However, the sheer distance from Chonghao’s home to the program and conflicts with the school were barriers to success.
“Chonghao needed continuous therapy and structure in his daily routine. Month-long programs can’t provide that. While I still believe in the power of therapy programs and fundraising efforts to support these families, I knew that I needed to do more. I want to help Chonghao’s family and more to help the millions of families like his. “
A solution starts to form.
Two ideas began to form in Isabella’s mind. Families need support for in-home therapies. And neurodivergent individuals need help to find work.
Isabella teamed up with fellow high school students in the US, Anshul Gupta, Andrew Kim, and Arnav Gurudatt. They began to create a social enterprise called AUesome.
“My team and I designed in-home therapy kits with input from therapists and experts from Duke, Stanford, Harvard, Brown, University of Nevada. We reached out to professors and business professionals, seeking their advice on our minimally viable product, go-to-market plan, and product features.
“We sent out initial kits to parents and therapists, took in their feedback, both positive and negative, and used it to make AUesome as useful as it can be for children with autism.
“AUesome bridges the gap between digital and at-home therapy for children with autism through our therapy kits. The kits combine all of the three key components of successful at-home therapy: parent-implemented intervention, personalization, and hands-on training.”
One component of AUesome is software. Isabella had a chance to hear a talented software engineer speak and stayed behind to ask questions.
“I discovered that this successful, inspirational, talented software engineer was neurodiverse. She told me about the adversities she overcame, from unwelcoming work environments to overwhelming hurdles with a lack of proper training.
“I left that meetup with a drive to provide the support that she didn’t have for other neurodiverse individuals. At around the same time, I worked on a research paper on career-technical education, a specialized vocational training. From there, the idea for my nonprofit SN Inclusion developed. SN Inclusion aims to address the gap in vocational training for neurodiverse individuals using career-technical education.”
We are building two wings of the airplane while flying.
With two offerings in front of them, this team of high school students got to work.
They set up a GoFundMe campaign. They reached out for donations and held fundraisers.
“My team and I reached out to news channels to publicize our efforts and spread the word about our offerings. We also reached out to therapists and nonprofits that work with families and neurodiverse communities.
“Finding our first customers was our biggest challenge. This was especially true for AUesome since we had to find parents with children with ASD in the age range of 2-6 years old. With both SN Inclusion and AUesome, we needed to build credibility for our courses or therapy kits within the community.
“Parent ambassadors were crucial for us. Our first eight customers filled out feedback forms, which gave us a lot of advice for how to improve our product, and also recommended our products to other families.”
Not everyone was a fan of the idea.
“When the AUesome team and I reached out to a Stanford professor and pitched our idea to him, we received some harsh (but beneficial) feedback. He told us to go back to the drawing board. It was a blow to our traction and confidence. But we took his advice, improved our product, and persevered with our belief in the value of our product.
“I believe in the power of young leaders to expand an organization’s impact and make their own contributions to inclusion and diversity. With SN Inclusion, 13+ chapters contribute to amplifying our impact and partnerships. Young leaders all over the world are passionate about neurodiversity. They create content for SN Inclusion’s courses and spread awareness about neurodiversity.”
SN Inclusion is already spreading to new countries.
“In countries outside of America, employment disparities and inequalities are amplified for neurodiverse individuals. To reach these countries, SN Inclusion is forming partnerships with schools, businesses, and other nonprofit organizations in other countries such as China and Hong Kong.”
The reward is in the journey.
“I receive heartwarming feedback from the customers and families we serve. It’s been amazing to see young leaders discover a passion for neurodiversity advocacy through their contributions to SN Inclusion.
“If I could pass along one piece of advice, I would say, talk to experts. The interviews with professors, therapists, parents, and other nonprofit leaders were instrumental to our progress. Many are so willing to help, and their advice is invaluable. As a special note for young leaders, don’t be afraid to seek out adults for advice.”
A call to action on behalf of neurodiverse people.
“I would encourage all business or nonprofit employers to look at resources for hiring neurodiverse employees. I think neurodiversity is one of the less-talked-about areas concerning diversity, but it is crucial to inclusion.
“Neurodiverse individuals have unique talents and strengths that make them loyal, dependable and focused employees. Businesses can even get Work Opportunity Tax Credits for hiring neurodiverse employees. Beyond hiring, also think about creating a safe and supportive work environment for neurodiverse employees that understands their unique differences and allows them to flourish. “
About SN Inclusion
SN Inclusion is a nonprofit dedicated to increasing neurodiversity in the workplace. Our mission is to tap into the unique passions, strengths, and abilities of neurodiverse individuals. SN Inclusion has 13+ chapters across the United States and overseas in China and Hong Kong and has achieved partnerships with local businesses Friends Coffee and Tea and Turtleworks embroidery. SN Inclusion was featured on Tri-City Voice and Autism Spectrum News. The organization’s advisors include Dr. Linda Lotspeich, a clinical professor, emerita, child psychiatrist at Stanford University, and Dr. Jocelyn Pan, a licensed clinical psychologist and Appletree Psychological Services director.
AUesome is a social enterprise that provides at-home therapy kits to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to provide support during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. AUesome’s mission is to make therapy more accessible and affordable by bridging at-home therapy’s physical and digital world. AUesome received more than 200 kit requests and has been featured on radio stations, Patch, ThinkKindness, CBS news, and more.
Learn More About Isabella He, SN Inclusion and AUesome:
- SN Inclusion: https://sninclusion.org
- AUesome: https://auesome.co
- SN Inclusion on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sninclusion
- SN Inclusion on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SN-Inclusion-102768024862916
- AUesome on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/auesome.co
- Isabella He on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/isabella-kai-he/
- Isabella He on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/iisabellahe
- Friends of Children with Special Needs (FCSN): https://fcsn1996.org
- Stanford Neurodiversity Project: https://med.stanford.edu/neurodiversity.html