Spotlight on: Garret Westlake and Disability as a Catalyst for Innovation

SILVER SPRING, Md., April 9, 2012 — Imagine if, the day your child got his or her autism diagnosis, instead of hearing, “I’m sorry. He will probably live a solitary life,” you heard, “Congratulations. The way his brain works will give him some incredible gifts that might help him find rewarding work in the science and technology industry.”

The deficit model of disability is one that has prevailed for decades. Now, some people are beginning to challenge that model and are looking at disability in a different way. Many people with disabilities such as Asperger’s Syndrome possess gifts that bring them success not despite their disability, but because of it. Some forward-thinking companies and individuals are looking to take these people and their skills and match them to companies looking for highly skilled employees to help them develop mutually beneficial relationships.

Garret Westlake is one of those people.

Westlake is the 31-year-old founder and CEO of STEM Force Technology, an Arizona company looking to do this very thing in the STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—fields. Westlake, who has dyslexia and dysgraphia, has adopted a way of thinking about disability that he calls “disability as a catalyst.” Westlake, who founded his company in early 2011, has thus far worked with nearly a dozen young people nationwide to help place them with companies, and has also created the Asperger’s Leadership Academy, which offers coaching for students with Asperger’s.

Westlake recently agreed to answer some questions to tell us about the company he founded and what exactly he means by “disability as a catalyst.”

Can you explain what you mean by disability as a catalyst?

A student with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] recently told me, “That would be a good idea if we weren’t trying to be innovative.” He wasn’t being rude. He was being helpful. He was being helpful in a way I have come to value in engineers with ASD.

A core value of STEM Force Technology is the idea that disability is a catalyst for innovation. It may present itself in being direct about the future of a project, remembering every line of code you have ever written, or interpreting the world as a series of fractal-based math equations. The reason disability is often overlooked, or dismissed, is because it is uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable, innovation is uncomfortable, and a 16-year-old who doesn’t make eye contact, rocks in his chair, and is a lot smarter than you, can definitely be uncomfortable.

The key is not to shy away from what is different, but to engage the difference and make it part of a larger conversation. When you can be open to radical ideas, different perspectives, and people whom you never imagined working with—that is where innovation happens. We create that environment at STEM Force and try to bring that message to communities and employers across the country.

Garret Westlake

Garret Westlake

What does STEM Force do?

STEM Force promotes the idea of disability as catalyst in three ways: We provide coaching to young adults with ASD, either individually or through our Asperger’s Leadership Academy; we match individuals with ASD with companies and assist both parties with the transition and employment experience; and we develop, test, and market software and web-based projects for third parties using our in-house team of individuals with ASD who work directly for STEM Force.

How did STEM Force get started?

I founded STEM Force Technology in early 2011. Although I am the sole founder, I have been fortunate to have good friends and mentors in business and software who continue to provide assistance. One of the early, and defining, choices I made was to be a for-profit company. At the core, STEM Force is about reinforcing the idea that individuals with disabilities have unique talents and abilities. These abilities are the catalyst we need for innovation and the best platform for that is the open market. I often describe STEM Force as the combination of passion, purpose, and profits.

Can you explain why you chose to create STEM Force as a for-profit business instead of a non-profit?

I knew when I developed my own vision for STEM Force that it would be a for-profit company. It is about respect. I have respect for the people I hire, respect for the companies I work with, and respect for the current state of disability in society. I don’t mean to imply that not-for-profit companies don’t respect people with disabilities, but for what I want to accomplish there was no question—we would be for-profit.

I am sending a message to young people with ASD that they are valued and no one needs to pad the bottom line. I’m sending a message to other companies that we have superior talent and we’ll beat them on the open market.

Do the young people you place earn a competitive wage?

Yes. All of the businesses we work with understand that we are often providing exceptional talent in an area and therefore there is never a question over employees earning at least a competitive wage.

How exactly does STEM Force work?

We are always looking to meet new people with ASD, hear their story, and help them find a niche. We keep a database of everyone with ASD who we meet and code their strengths and interests. We keep a similar database with information on individuals and companies that are looking for particular talent. We match the talent with the need whenever and wherever we can.

One client in the community asked us to design a web application for his company. We identified the skills we would need to complete the project, and contacted the relevant individuals from our national database. Our top engineer on the project had an interview with Google during this process and we helped him prepare for that interview and are hoping he gets the job. That’s the kind of company we are. We want success for everyone we work with in this process.

Can you give me a few examples of success stories with your employees?

In December of 2011, I gave a talk on Disability as Catalyst for a great collaborative workspace in Chandler, Arizona called Gangplank. Gangplank is home to many technology companies and I was giving a community talk on why individuals with ASD are so valuable in the marketplace. One young man in attendance identified himself as having ASD, and after the presentation one of the company CEOs in attendance pulled that young man aside and spoke with him at length. That same night I got en email from the CEO who let me know that my presentation changed his whole perception of ASD and he had hired this young man to work on a project. Two months later I was able to place a second student with ASD with this company and the first individual is still working there.

One example of a “good problem” at STEM Force is the case of one of our in-house engineers working on a contract for us when he was contacted by Google. As a recent college graduate without work experience, his ability to leverage his employment and experience with us helped him in his quest for a job at Google, and we were happy to help him on that journey. He will hopefully leave us for Google, but again, that’s a good problem as it opens another in-house spot for someone else.

On a recent recruiting trip to the Georgia Institute of Technology, I met a Ph.D. student with ASD who was studying polymer engineering. He admitted that he didn’t expect much from our meeting because he had a highly technical focus that didn’t involve software engineering or IT. Fortunately for him, the week before I traveled to Atlanta I met a Phoenix-based entrepreneur working on a proprietary polymer who asked if I knew any talented engineers. It was a great a great experience connecting these two and I’m hopeful that the student will have additional options when he graduates, if not before, because of his involvement with the entrepreneur.

Why do companies want to work with you to find employees?

Some companies choose us because they believe in supporting companies who have a social mission. Some companies approach us is because their employees have children with ASD, and parents who work for those employers know that our company is creating a culture that will open doors for their own children in the future. I would encourage all parents in the workplace to examine how their employer can diversify the talent they hire or the impact of the companies they partner with in business.

The best reason that companies have for working with us is that we have top talent. The most brilliant engineer is not wearing his Sunday best and chatting up a recruiter at a college job fair. The truly exceptional talent is in the lab, the library, or in their dorm room designing, innovating, and teaching themselves new skills. Companies are realizing that we find these talented students and create environments for optimal individual and corporate success.

How have your disabilities affected your life?

For me, having a learning disability meant I started the journey to understand who I really am in the first grade. That turned out to be a pretty big head start on a lot of people. The early struggles and failures I experienced made the ones that came later contribute to my own story instead of useless drama. I think we all try to find out who we are, what we’re good at, and what to stay away from in life. Having a disability can really help in that process.

Did your parents raise you to think positively about your diagnoses, or did you have negative feelings about them?

I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia in the first grade. My first grade teacher noticed that I was reading differently from other children and referred me for educational testing. All I remember from meeting with an educational specialist at that age is being taught to use a pencil grip to improve my handwriting. I hated it.

By the third grade, I was using a computer to type all of my assignments. Using a computer, instead of handwriting and copying from the board, eliminated many of frustrations I was having in the classroom. I don’t remember ever talking about my learning disability with my parents until high school, when I was retested to qualify for extended time on the SAT. That was a negative experience for me because I had succeeded in an elite private school and didn’t understand why I was now being told there was something wrong with me.

What is the Asperger’s Leadership Academy is new and what led you to create it?

I am extremely excited about our new Asperger’s Leadership Academy (ALA). The educational system in this country operates from a deficit model, and too many programs for young adults with disabilities are designed to remediate weaknesses instead of building upon existing strengths. Young adults enter post-secondary education or the workforce with little knowledge of themselves other than their weaknesses. The goal of the ALA is to change the existing deficit model to one that helps young adults identify and leverage their strengths.

The ALA is an opportunity for high school students and recent graduates to come together for a two-day conference that teaches them to identify their strengths, leverage those strengths through school, work, or internships, and leave with a plan of action for improving not just their personal situation, but to make their community and the world a better place.

I know saying that we will make the world a better place may sound cliche, but some of our young people with ASD are the best and brightest minds in the country, and I refuse to interact with them from a deficit model. The goal is to bring the ALA to cities across the United States so that young people with ASD have the tools to build on their strengths and make a positive impact on society.

I like the analogy of comparing young people with ASD to talented young athletes. When someone like one of the Williams sisters shows incredible gifts as a tennis player, we do not lament the fact that she may be a poor softball player. Further, it would be laughable to spend endless resources teaching Serena Williams to play softball, because she struggles to master it, when tennis comes so naturally.

The ALA is a resource designed to build on the natural talents of people with ASD in a future-oriented way. Few people care that Serena may or may not be a talented softball player. The goal is to empower and highlight the talents of individuals with ASD so they are seen the same way—for their talents.

How can people get involved with STEM Force?

Anyone reading this can become involved. If you are employed, then you or your employer can partner with STEM Force to host interns with ASD. We can also handle outsource or development projects. At a minimum, everyone should be advocating for his or her employer to hire diverse staff and do business with socially responsible companies like STEM Force.

Our size is a real strength when it comes to working with individuals who have ideas for websites, blogs, or mobile applications. We can easily hire some of the best young engineers in the country to bring your project to market or just online. We specialize in helping other social impact companies and not for profits enter the online marketplace. We would love to hear your idea, especially if it helps others!

Our mission is to change the way society views individuals with ASD and eventually all disabilities. Anyone who wants to get involved with STEM Force can invite us to give a presentation about our model for their employer, university, school, advocacy group, or personal network. We hope to be offering coaching services and our Asperger’s Leadership Academy in cities across the country in 2012. You can make your city one of the first by inviting us to join you in creating lasting change in your community.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing young adults with autism when they are looking for work?

The interview process is highly social and highlights many of the challenges experienced by individuals with ASD. If interviews were tests of ability, focus, and dedication, young adults with ASD would excel, but instead, interviews are too often tests of social norms. We work with our young people to highlight their skills and ability during interviews in ways that overshadow any perceived social deficits.

Most people find jobs through their extended network. For young people with ASD this can be particularly challenging due to their having smaller circles of friends and family friends less willing to vouch for them the way they may for others. STEM Force provides this network for young people by reaching out across the country to find people who appreciate talent and offer conducive work environments.

What do you think is the most important thing you could say to parents of young people with disabilities to help them see the potential in their children?

Parents will always be there for their children and that makes it hard to push them, to see them fail, and to take the risks that sometimes we need to take. I would tell parents to find someone who can push their child, who believes in them, and who challenges what is possible.

What do you think is the most important thing you could say to young people with disabilities to encourage them?

I would tell young people with disabilities that no one sees the world like they do, and that there is great power in that perspective. You can’t approach problems the same way that other people do because they are different problems. Other people may need to help you solve the challenges you face, but they also need you to help them with their challenges. Don’t refuse help and don’t be scared to help others.

You speak about the deficit model most of us use to look at disability. Tell me about how you see disability.

I think Professor Xavier and I probably see disability the same way. Are angel wings a blessing or a curse? Are they both? A medical model of disability says we are mutants. I prefer superhero.

For more from Westlake, take a look at this recording of his talk about disability as a catalyst referenced above. If you have a disability or especially if you are the parent of a person with a disability, I highly recommend that you watch the whole thing.

Jean writes a personal blog at Stimeyland and an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey. Read more of Jean’s work at Autism Unexpected in the Communities at the Washington Times. Please credit Jean Winegardner and the “Communities at” when linking to this story.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Jean Winegardner

When Jean had her first child in 2001, "autism" was about the scariest word she could think of. Six years later when her second child was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of autism, she was just happy to have a word to help him get the services he needed. Her autism journey has been full of tears, laughter, love and at least one attorney.

Jean blogs about her life with her autistic son, Jack, on her blog, Stimeyland. Her two neurotypical children, Sam and Quinn (one older, one younger than Jack), make frequent appearances there as well. Also at Stimeyland? Jean's quirky sense of humor.

She also runs AutMont, an events calendar listing autism-related events in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Raising a child with special needs is hard for so many reasons, but after living with Jack, Jean wouldn't trade him for anything in the world. Come along with Jean as she experiences the joys that come with parenting a special kid.

You can email Jean anytime at stimeyland at gmail dot com or follow her on Twitter, where, as "Stimey," she offers her world view in snippets of 140 characters or less.

Contact Jean Winegardner


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