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Autism Micro Business Builders: Creating Job Opportunities for Adults with Autism

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Angel Eduardo

Mehreen Hussein, an idealist from California poses next to the Idealist logo in front of a balcony.

More than two years had passed since Mehreen Hussain first had her idea: the thing she wanted to do to help others and make the world a better place. She spent those years with the idea tucked away in the back of her mind, unsure about how—or if—she could move from intention to action and make it a reality. As Idealist Day 4/4 approached, Mehreen resolved to finally get started. She sat down to begin thinking and planning, and decided to put her idea out there in a post for the Idealists of the World Facebook group. “When I was writing that post, I was a little scared of saying that I want to do this,” Mehreen remembers. “I thought, Oh my god, will I be able to do it? because my life is so crazy.” As a single parent working full-time to support her two children who both have autism, Mehreen’s life can get overwhelming. The thought of adding to her already-long list of responsibilities was understandably daunting. She saw the post she was about to share as a commitment—when the idea finally became a promise to herself that she would have to honor. “I took two or three days to mull over it,” she remembers, “thinking, Maybe I shouldn’t do it. I’m not going to do it for 4/4, maybe I’ll do it for 5/5. I did actually go through that entire dialogue with myself, and then I just took the plunge.”

First Facebook post about Autism Micro Business Builders.

"A micro-business is a very small enterprise run by one person or a few people, who could be responsible for everything from providing the service to managing the business itself,” Mehreen explains. Her idea is for adults with autism to have and run these businesses for themselves as a way to become more self-sufficient in adulthood, when many of the available assistance programs age them out. As she mentioned in her post, Mehreen was setting out on this journey because of her own children. Raising them had shown her how difficult things could be for people with autism, and she wanted to do her part to help. “Autism means limitations in conversation,” she says. “It means having issues with how to deal in social situations, how to have social encounters with other people. Most of the [existing] organizations prefer to work with the high-functioning [people with autism] because at least they are verbal and they can hold a conversation.” However, Mehreen notes that this leaves out a significant portion of the autistic population. “The reason I want to start this micro-business thing is actually more for people who are moderate- and low-functioning because they’re the ones who may not be able to find jobs. I know organizations who are doing stuff for people who are high-functioning, who are able to get degrees and stuff like that.”

In 2014, after years of moving back and forth from Pakistan to the U.S., Mehreen settled permanently in Carlsbad, California, near San Diego (USA). It was shortly after that she learned about Idealist and Idealist Days, and the wheels of her future venture began turning. “Through the Idealist job board, I came across some presentations made by [Idealist founder] Ami Dar,” she remembers. “One day I get this message that there’s this big presentation, and Ami is going to announce something. That’s when he first explained his idea of what he wanted to do [for Idealist Days]. I thought, This sounds interesting. This is something that I would like to be a part of.

Mehreen had already begun thinking about her idea for building micro-businesses for young adults with autism, and she thought Idealist Days could serve as a way to make it a reality. She formed her own Idealist Group, the Idealists of North County San Diego, and held their first meeting on the very first Idealist Day, 3/3, in 2018. That first meeting was just Mehreen and one other idealist, but by their 5/5 meeting, they’d found a third. Beyond getting to know each other, the group began discussing possible plans of action and things they could do together. Mehreen’s idea was never far from her mind, but she still couldn’t quite see how to approach it. The Idealist Day 9/9 and 10/10 meetings happened, and the group began to share the issues and causes they were passionate about. “We finally started acting as a kind of a Success Team,” Mehreen wrote in a post in the Idealists of the World group, “whereby each of us shared a problem/dream/cause that we had, and all of us brainstormed and made suggestions to help achieve it/solve it.”

Idealist Day Meetups for the Idealists of North County San Diego.
Left: 8/8 Idealist Day, North County San Diego at Swami's Cafe, Oceanside, California. Broke Bread! Made new friends! Welcomed a new member! Discussed possible scope of working by the group! Right: Celebrated 10/10 Idealist Day of North County San Diego with Lauren Blackwell and Mindy Conner in Oceanside

That was the first time Mehreen mentioned her micro-business idea and began to seriously think about what she was going to do about it. Using the encouragement and support from her fellow idealists, Mehreen started thinking about how she can finally get started and also keep herself on a consistent schedule of productivity. “This idea was on the back burner for two years,” she says. “For two years I let it slide and I wasn’t doing it. Things are crazy for me most of the time, but they’re crazy for me now as well, and I could have started it then but I didn’t. And I have the Idealist platform, so I might as well use it.” That’s when it occurred to Mehreen to use Idealist Days as milestones for achieving goals, beginning with that first announcement post in the Idealists of the World group on 4/4. “It's motivating,” she says, “and then of course there’s the accountability because a lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, keep us posted!’ So I have to make sure that I have something!”

For Mehreen, the monthly accountability proved incredibly effective. After her 4/4 post her activity ramped up. She spent 5/5 coordinating with two fellow idealists—one from New York City, the other from Uganda—who are also interested in supporting communities with autism and making specific plans to move forward her idea. “We were able to connect and we had a wonderful conversation, and we’re in continuous contact since then,” she remembers about speaking with the idealist from Uganda. “She is all gung-ho, and the story that she shared about people with autism is similar to what I have seen in different places. To a certain extent, it is here in the U.S. as well. I guess it would depend on where in the U.S. you are living. In California, people have a very high level of awareness, so it’s a little different, but in some other parts of the country, I think people are still struggling. And, of course, because of my experience in Pakistan and some other parts of the world, I’ve been able to connect with different people. What she was sharing with me reaffirmed what I was thinking.”

Two months after her initial post, Mehreen’s Idealist Day deadline structure was working wonders for her. In preparation for 6/6, she resolved to accomplish two goals: decide on a social media platform for her group, and settle on a name for her micro-business idea. In keeping with her system of creating accountability through Idealist Days and the Idealists of the World group, Mehreen shared her 6/6 progress in a post on June 13, 2019.

Autism Micro Business builders update.

With an official name, Autism Micro Business Builders, and a freshly created LinkedIn forum for her group, Mehreen was now moving steadily from intention to action, one step at a time. “I had not created a LinkedIn group before,” she explains of the process, “so I had to learn how it works, how to post, how to manage the group, all those things, so that was all going on at the same time.” 

On 7/7, Mehreen held her first virtual meeting for the Autism Micro Business Builders group, which now included people from the United States, Uganda, Kenya, and the United Kingdom. The process was one of learning for Mehreen, but the more she did, the more she found she was up for the challenge.

“When you meet for the first time, there is that ice-breaking kind of a period, and it’s different continents, different cultures, different mindsets, so it was crazy the moderation that I had to do. But it was fun. I learned a lot from that, and I have some ideas for how to proceed.”

As she shared her progress with her fellow idealists in the Idealists of the World group on Facebook, Mehreen was continuously bolstered by the group’s enthusiasm for her project. “The encouragement helps a lot, but it did take me by surprise. A couple of comments really took me aback,” she says, noting how unusual it can be to feel supported and affirmed. Now that she has a working system and structure, Mehreen is focused purely on what she can do next. “It’s still a journey. I still have a lot to do; this is just the start. There’s a lot of stuff that’s in my mind right now, but I want to keep it doable.” Despite her tenacity and forward-thinking mindset, when looking back on the previous two years and her initial reservations about getting started, even Mehreen must remark at just how far she’s already come. “I guess from one perspective, the fact that I was able to start it after two years, that is probably a cause for celebration,” she says. Most of all, she’s grateful to have had Idealist Days—and her fellow idealists—to help her along. “I think I’ve achieved more than I would have if I hadn’t used Idealist Days as deadlines,” she says. “Previously I was just at sea, thinking, Ok, I want to do this. How am I going to do this? And I was inspired by what a lot of people were doing in the Idealists of the World group. So I said, ‘Ok, there’s something cooking, I’ve been thinking about it, so let’s just do it.’”

An illustration of a yellow line with a star at the end.
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Angel Eduardo

Angel uses his skills as a storyteller to support and inspire job seekers and aspiring social-impact professionals.