UC Berkeley alumnus co-founds startup to help people along autistic spectrum

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Austin Weinhart/Courtesy

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Coding Autism, a Los Angeles-based startup co-founded by UC Berkeley alumnus Austen Weinhart that aims to empower individuals along the autistic spectrum, has raised more than $18,000 over the past week.

The company’s crowdfunding goal is $50,000. It will use the funds to finance its ASPIRE Web Development Immersive — a 15-week course where adults with autism can learn communication and technology skills needed for an entry-level web developer job. According to a Coding Autism press release, the class size will be capped to 15 students and will include an on-site occupational therapist that will help address the specific needs of each group of students.

“Our goal is to not only help adults with autism find careers to be financially self-sufficient but also find long term career growth and fulfillment,” Weinhart said.

Karen Nielson, the director of UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students Program, said in an email that she believes that, if successful, ASPIRE could serve as a model for other programs across the country.

Nielson added that people with disabilities are significantly underemployed — even when they possess college degrees from institutions such as UC Berkeley.

“Transition programs like this one, where students have an opportunity to improve their skills while also showing the value they bring to the workplace are excellent examples of ways to address underemployment and tap into the wealth of experience and knowledge that our graduates with disabilities bring to the table,” Nielson said in an email.

According to Oliver Thornton, CEO and co-founder of Coding Autism, 90 percent of individuals with autism are unemployed. Thornton said he believes that companies don’t know how to screen “autistic talent” because of their traditional methods of interviewing.

“The recruiter might interview them in a very social manner — in a manner that does not address their strengths,” Thornton said. “It makes them look unqualified when they might be the perfect employee for the job.”

Thornton said his primary motivation behind Coding Autism was personal — he and his two brothers are along the autistic spectrum. Weinhart, Thornton’s childhood friend, said he has often been surrounded by people with autism, which has influenced him to give back to this community.

Adam Ames, who freelances in manual software quality assurance and has a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder, said he plans on participating in the program. He added that he thinks programs such as ASPIRE will help people with disabilities “live a fuller life” by teaching them to hone their talents in a way that helps them be competitive in the job market.

“Having (those) specialized learning techniques that (apply) towards something like getting a job is really helpful to the community as a whole and also helpful for me,” Ames said.

Weinhart said the company hopes to launch ASPIRE in the fall or early next year, depending on the success of the crowdfunding campaign.

Contact Francesca Munsayac at fmunsayac@dailycal.org and follow her on Twitter at @fcfm_dc.

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