In This Special Fathers Network podcast David Hirsch talks to special father, David Friedman. David and his wife Diane are the parents of 4 children, Stacy, Jenna, Helene and Mathew who is autistic. We’ll hear the Friedman story of and how they’ve stuck together as a family unit.
And David Friedman who has had a successful business career formed a company called Autonomy Works, where employees with autism use their particular skills to perform needed services for clients.
Dad To Dad 26 – How David Friedman and his family of 6 worked together to raise their autistic son/ brother.
Tom Couch: This is the Special Fathers Network podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process. New fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support, or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org. That’s 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: Hi, I’m David Hirsch. This is the Special Fathers Network podcast stories of fathers helping fathers.
Tom Couch: And I’m Tom Couch. Today David talks to special father David Friedman.
David Friedman: Don’t give up. My son does things today that he never would have done five years ago.
Tom Couch: David and his wife, Diane are the parents of four children, Stacy Jenna Hellene and Matthew who’s autistic.
David Friedman: It wasn’t important to us. What it was called. We used to refer to it as. Matthew Allen syndrome, but his name is Matthew Allen.
Tom Couch: We’ll hear how Matthew, his sisters and his parents all stick together.
David Friedman: As a family unit, we committed that we were going to be a family and that we were going to include my son in everything we did.
Tom Couch: David who’s had a successful business career, formed a company called autonomy works, where employees with autism use their particular skills to perform needed services for client.
David Friedman: But what autonomy works and what having a job is has done for Matthew was it’s turned his focus forward. He’s thinking now about the future. He takes public transportation. He makesd his own lunch. He buys his own clothes.
Tom Couch: It’s an intriguing idea and an intriguing story. And it’s all in this Special Father’s Network podcast. Here’s David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Being a father is very important to me.
I’ve started a number of charitable organizations. Designed to increase the role of fathers. One of them, the special fathers network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers, raising children with special needs. We’ve been interviewing some exceptional fathers of special needs kids, and we want to share their stories with you.
Tom Couch: So let’s get to it. Let’s hear David Hirsch’s interview with special father David Friedman.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with my friend, David Friedman of Hinsdale, a father of four, who is CEO and founder of autonomy works a social impact venture business that creates real wage jobs for adults on the autism spectrum.
David, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the special fathers network.
David Friedman: Oh, you’re very welcome. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
David Hirsch: You and your wife, Diane have been married for 26 years and of the proud parents of three girls, Stacy 20 Jenna 18, Helene 16 and son. Matthew is now 23, who has autism?
Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family, including your siblings.
David Friedman: Yeah. I grew up on the East coast, in the suburbs of Washington, D C in a town called silver spring. Uh, my parents were married. I have a younger brother and a younger sister, and, uh, we lived in a very normal middle class neighborhood.
We lived on a call to SAC guy. Walk to school, played at the pool, rode my bike in the area. A very typical Beaver Cleaver. Yeah, very much. Okay.
David Hirsch: Okay. Describe your relationship with your dad.
David Friedman: And my father was a scientist, a biomedical engineer. He spent most of his career doing research on heart disease. He was a very important part of my life and taught me a lot about how to approach the world.
The skills that he taught me, I use every day today.
David Hirsch: Okay. What advice did you get from your dad or important lesson? Did you learn from your dad?
David Friedman: Yeah, there were really two things that I learned from my father. The first was, was curiosity. My dad was a. A scientist. So he was very interested in understanding the, how and the why behind everything, but how things work about heart disease, about how the elevator works.
And you pass that along to me to be very questioning, to be always wondering, what’s sort of the next layer of understanding, uh, behind almost. Almost everything, anything from politics to relationships, to mechanics, to jobs.
David Hirsch: So if I can paraphrase what you’ve said, he’s nurtured this intellectual curiosity.
David Friedman: Yes, absolutely. And the second thing is the scientific method. He was a very structured thinker and whenever there was a problem to solve, he applied the scientific method. What’s the question we’re trying to answer. What’s the data. We need to be able to do that. And he really believed that most questions could be answered through rational font.
And so that’s another skill that I use a lot that I believe. Um, almost every problem can be solved if you sort of think about it and work on it in the right way.
Excellent. So, uh, how about your grandpas? Did they play any role starting on your mom’s side and then your dad’s side?
My grandfather’s died when I was young, so I didn’t know either of them very well that said though their perspectives and their personalities did have an impact on my family indirectly through my grandmother, through my parents, through my, um, cousins.
Uh, both of them were not college educated. One was a first generation American, the second, uh, second generation American. And they were very committed to having their children go to college and learn, moving to professional jobs, sort of the classic American dream. So on my mother’s side, her and all four of her brothers went to Harvard.
My father, him and his brother were both college educated. My dad has a PhD. There was a ferry. Strong belief in working in order to provide better opportunities for yourself and your children.
David Hirsch: And with an emphasis on education
David Friedman: and education. Right?
David Hirsch: I remember one of my grandfathers mentioned to me how important education was.
They immigrated to the U S and September of 1939, literally as Poland was being embedded. So there are German Jews and they are moving to the U S didn’t know, the language had to start all over and. Left most everything behind, except for the education, which is something you take with you. And he was very focused on education and got a MBA from the university of Chicago.
I don’t think they called it an MBA back then, but the equivalent of that degree, it really sent a very clear message to me and the rest of our family, about the importance of education, something you carry with you. It’s not something that’s material. And I hear sort of those same words coming.
David Friedman: I think that’s very much the way to look at it.
Both my families have that same experience on my father’s side, they’re Hungarian Jews, and they left probably five or six years earlier than your family did. And then on my mother’s side, there I’m Irish that family left during the potato famine in the late 18 hundreds. And again, the only thing you can take with you is what you can carry.
And education is something that you can carry with you wherever you go.
David Hirsch: Exactly. So, um, you have an MBA from the university of Chicago booth school of business and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Cornell. Uh, when you first graduated. I think you mentioned you went into consulting. What were you thinking?
What was your life’s ambition then?
David Friedman: And when I graduated from business school, I wanted to be CEO of a company. I didn’t matter which one, just with the important thing at the time, I had only worked for a few years before business school and I thought consulting would be a great way. To learn a lot about different businesses and work across industries and functions.
And it proved to be that I spent 10 years in consulting. I learned quite a bit. I worked in financial services and consumer products, lots of different functions. It’s a very interesting for me, as I mentioned earlier, The intellectual curiosity of going into an organization, trying to understand their problems and figure out solutions.
It’s always fun for me.
David Hirsch: That’s awesome. So, out of curiosity, how did you and Diane meet
David Friedman: right out of college? We worked for the same company. She’s from Boston. I grew up, as I said in Maryland, and we both ended up at the same company and literally met her in the elevator one day. And. The rest is history 33 years later, we’re still together.
David Hirsch: That’s great. So from a work experience, I know that some of your past responsibilities have included being president of marketing for serious holdings executive with Razorfish, one of the world’s largest interactive marketing and technology companies, and then Anderson consulting, which is now Accenture.
So let’s talk about special needs on a personal level. And then beyond before Matthew was born. Did you and Diane have any connection to the special
David Friedman: needs community? Really? We had no connection at all. I had a neighbor who had special needs when I was growing up, but beyond sort of chance interactions and crossing paths with people with disabilities.
We had very little other interaction.
David Hirsch: So with that in mind, what was your first reaction upon learning of Matthew’s diagnosis?
David Friedman: We had anticipated. That there was an issue with Matthew from when he was first born. He missed milestones almost immediately.
David Hirsch: So at the beginning is that first month through first quarter, first year
David Friedman: from really from the first month, took him longer to pick up his head, took him longer to turn over, took him longer to Babel, took them longer to stand, took them longer to walk.
So we, we knew that there was. At very least at some sort of a motor planning issue and we never really focused on a diagnosis. It wasn’t important to us what it was called. We used to refer to it as a Matthew Allen syndrome, but his name is Matthew Allen, and it was just sort of who he is and what he was.
And it wasn’t really him. Potent, what it was called to really, even when he was very young, we started taking him to therapy, but with occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and it wasn’t really, until he was five years old, when he was ultimately diagnosed with autism, all that really did was give us a label that other people.
Somewhat understood to describe it. It’s useful in some respects because it made it easier for other people to understand, but as parents having a label to it didn’t really make much difference.
David Hirsch: Okay. So there’s a three or difference between Matthew and Stacy here. Next oldest, Matthew’s got these delays and Diane’s pregnant and you have another child.
It seems like it might have been a little
David Friedman: complicated. Yeah. A special needs child. Requires a lot, a lot of, um, support, uh, Matt would go to therapy. Two three, four days a week, as well as sort of the behavioral challenges that he had, that consumed lots of time and attention from me and my wife. And so bringing another child into that is a really important choice because you have to feel confident that you can provide that child also what, what they need.
You know, we talked a lot about it and thought a lot about that. Ultimately had our first daughter and then felt like we were able to manage that. Annette had had two more
David Hirsch: so I’m sort of curious to know what advice type of advice did you get early on that you felt that was really insightful or beneficial
David Friedman: early on there weren’t a lot of role models or. Uh, sources of advice autism. This was in the late nineties was just at the early phase of the growth in the autism diagnosis.
So there weren’t a lot of established charities or organizations that were providing information on autism. So. Most of the advice I got was really about raising kids with special needs and more broadly, not really about autism. I think one of the most important things that I was told was to pay attention to your relationship with your spouse or your partner, raising a child with special needs.
It’s extremely time consuming. He takes time. To go to therapy. He takes time to help him with his behavioral issues. He takes time to be taught in a different way from some other kids need to be. And you spend a lot of time talking about him at a certain point that can take over your entire relationship to the point where you’re not actually be together married anymore.
And so I got advice from a couple of people to make sure that you invested that. And my wife. And I made a conscious effort to make sure that we still went out, or if we didn’t go out that we set aside time for ourselves, uh, to maintain our relationship because, uh, it’s really hard. A lot of relationships fall apart when there’s a special needs child and we were committed to that, not happening.
David Hirsch: That’s wonderful. So one of the ideas or thoughts that comes to mind is the idea of compartmentalizing. Was that one of the strategies or was that part of the solution in your situation or were there others?
David Friedman: C’mon analyzing was absolutely a strategy for us. My wife and I both have MBAs and we’re both very career oriented.
And when Matt. Turned about two years old, he had a series of seizures that were very serious and that were going to require him to have sort of a increase in his medical involvement. And we had to make a choice either both of us had to step back in our careers or one of us was going to stay home. And one of us was going to pursue kind of making money and supporting the family.
And, and ultimately we decided that my wife would stay home and that I would focus more of my energy on. In common and supporting the family. So I was working quite a bit. I was traveling when I was on the road. I worked a hundred percent of the time from eight in the morning until 11 o’clock at night.
And when I crossed the threshold of my house on Thursday night or Friday night, I didn’t think about work until I got on a plane on Monday morning. And that was very important because that time then I could dedicate fully to my family, but my son and my daughters. And to my wife
David Hirsch: and I heard a divide and conquer strategy in there as well.
Right. You each had roles and whether they were articulated or you just sort of fell into those roles, that was a routine that seemed to work really successfully for you.
David Friedman: I think it was great that we made a conscious choice to set roles because. I think it made me respect her role more than, than I might have.
This was a conscious choice that she made and to go be excellent at being a mom and being excellent at raising our son. And I have a lot of respect for that. I could not have done that. She was very good at it. She had to give up some things in order to be able to do that. And I think it was great that we talked about it because I think it gave me a greater appreciation.
Of the choice that she was making to do
David Hirsch: that. So what were some of the more important decisions that you and Diane made raising four children, including almost special names.
David Friedman: There were a couple of important decisions that we made along the way. The first I’ve already mentioned was. The decision for Diane to us, to at home with our kids.
The second is we moved, we had been living in the city. It was clear that the school system in the city wasn’t going to be able to support Matt fully. So we, uh, Researched in the city. We moved ultimately to Hinsdale where the schools are not only very strong, but also very supportive of children with special needs.
The third thing was we committed that we were going to be a family and that when we went on vacation, everybody was going to go on vacation. When we went to. For the Shedd aquarium, everybody was going to go to the Shedd aquarium and that we were going to include my son in everything we did, despite the fact that some of those things were challenging for him.
And sometimes we would go to the theater and. I would end up sitting with him in the lobby for the entire thing, but we would go as a family because that was what the family was doing. So we committed, and this was really largely driven by my wife to be at a family.
David Hirsch: Now that’s really important to try to do that as best you can.
It’s easier said than done. It takes a lot of discipline and you have to rearrange your expectations. Like you were saying, you might be sitting in the lobby or, you know, you. Might be totally distracted by, you know, the events that transpired, but if you’re not doing that and you somehow avoid doing things as a family, you know, you end up in a place maybe looking backwards that you might have some second guesses about.
So what are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve encountered now with 23 years of experience under your belt?
David Friedman: I’ve touched on some of the challenges already retaining a relationship with your spouse or partner. Maintaining attention to your other children and making sure that they feel important even though the child with special needs is, is likely consuming 50, 75.
80% of your attention and time. And so being intentional about how you work with your other children, it’s been very hard to maintain relationships with other people, other families, other men, simply not a, not a lot of emotional or physical space for that. So it’s been hard to sort of create an extended group of friends.
David Hirsch: Okay. Well, thank you for your authenticity. So what impact has Matthew situation had on your girls or for that matter? The rest of your family?
David Friedman: I’m not going to go so far as to say that bat’s autism is a blessing, but, um, it is certainly influenced a lot, my daughters and in a lot of ways, uh, they are significantly more empathetic.
They are fierce advocates for him, but they are also helping to raise him, making sure we maintain expectations for him, of how we should behave and how we should interact with people and what he should do and teaching him and supporting him. It’s been hard for them. They have missed out on things because of having a brother with special needs, but they get has made them.
More aware of others and more empathetic with others.
David Hirsch: Okay. One of the things we have in common is we have three daughters and mine are a little bit older than nearest 27, 25 and 21. So I’m just a step or two ahead. And I can remember back at the ages that your girls are now. That, uh, there were boys that were coming into their lives.
And I’m wondering if there’s been any impact having an older brother, but older, only chronologically by age, not by emotional maturity. Uh, if it’s had any impact on some of the relationships that they’re forming with.
David Friedman: Boys. It’s very interesting. We have a, uh, a test in our house called the Matthew tests.
So any, any new friend or potential boyfriend has to come over and have dinner with us in Matthew. And we get a very good, a read on their character based on how they, uh, interact with Matthew. Matthew is, is part of our life and it’s part of their lives and they expect their. Friends and significant others to bring him into their lives too.
And to treat him with respect and so forth. So it probably has to some extent limited their pool of, uh, potential, uh, boyfriends. But I, I think they’re more likely to end up with a, with a better catch at the end of it all.
David Hirsch: You know, it sounds like it, I love it. The Matthew test. And I imagine if we’re candid, um, It’s probably helped filter your friend group too.
David Friedman: I’m sure.
David Hirsch: Right. Just because, you know, you’re, you’re going to be more comfortable around people that are more accepting of Matthew and your situation, and you might just the general population of neighbors and friends or coincidence. Right. So what supporting organizations have you relied on for Matthew’s benefit?
David Friedman: The first thing I mentioned earlier, which was the school system, we had great support throughout his time in both elementary school and middle school and high school. And not just a support in terms of teaching him, but also support in terms of including him in the school. He was included throughout his time in school and the teachers and his other support system, speech therapists, OTs, um, did a lot to get him integrated into the classroom, the work that was being done in the classroom and the, um, relationships that were being built in the classroom.
The track team and cross country team in the high school was run by one of the social workers. And he did a lot to get Matt involved in the teams and Matt ran cross country and track throughout high school in the regular. Team, uh, he went to the meets. He ran in the meats and did great. And not only did it get him involved in activities at school, but it’s also taught him how to add an exercise.
And it’s built sort of a passion for him and exercise, which I think will help him throughout his life. But when he left high school, Uh, he moved from being in sort of the high school sports into special Olympics and special Olympics has been an outstanding organization. He started by running track and then he played basketball and now he participates in five sports year round.
He he’s very focused on. Getting better on how he’s doing on participating on being part of the team and helping other people. It’s a, it’s a fantastic organization. And not only does it help him sort of when he’s at the practices or at the games, but it’s also encouraged him to try new things. So just the other day he had a bowling practice and my wife was downtown and I was unable to take him there and he had to figure out how to get the bowling.
Himself. So he walked down to the train, took the train one, stop walk from the train to the bowling, figured all of that out by himself and executed all of that by himself because he wanted to go to bowl Lang. And so having a goal and objective health pole. People to, into their, out of their comfort zone to try new things.
And that’s no different for him than it is for us. For him, it was taking public transportation to get to the bowling alley for us. It might be something different, but having those kinds of goals really help
David Hirsch: that’s fabulous. So let’s switch gears from your personal experience. Being a dad with a child with special needs to what I would call your.
Professional experience. Autonomy works as a five year old social impact venture business that partners with leading companies that need marketing operations support autonomy works, utilizes the unique talents of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Along with technology and systems design to provide both competitive solutions and exceptional quality
David Friedman: at autonomy works.
Our dream is to change the way the world views people with autism, but it really came up to autonomy works because of my son, Matthew, who is now 22 years old since joining autonomy works, he’s really changed his focus from being backward, looking to thinking about building a life. Our associates with autism are not only capable of the work.
That we do, but they are actually better at the work is Carrie Pierce, autonomy works, director of talent and operations. We believe that a job is a critical part of an individual’s life. And when someone feels empowered, they can do all sorts of things that they never thought were possible. I feel more independent and being able to help contribute with my family’s finances and saving them for the things that I want.
That’s Berkeley and autonomy works associate and here’s Phillip. Another associate working at a time, your works has created a positive impact on my life because I’m using my mathematical
David Hirsch: skills.
David Friedman: Literally autonomy works would not exist if it weren’t for the skills and talents of people with autism, we’re looking to create a company that employs 10,000 people with autism around the world.
And our hope is by being an example, by being a case study, that we can convince large companies that not only should they have people with autism on their team, but in fact, they’re essential part of any organization. Part of what we’re trying to do with autonomy works is not just hire people with autism.
Although we do do that, but we also want to be an example, a case study that inspires small companies and large companies to hire people with autism. So I, at the end of. This one where we sort of reached our goals. Some of our goals with autonomy was I want to be able to stand up and say, we competed just like a professional cert, any other services firm we won were we made money.
We supported ourselves profitably as an organization because of the talents of people with autism. And I think being a for profit company, we have a much stronger platform to stand on. Then if we were a not-for-profit. So that’s, that’s the other reason
David Hirsch: that’s fabulous. And you have gotten some support from the, not for profit community.
Vis-a-vis the foundation world.
David Friedman: Yes, we have. We’ve gotten support from foundations, from government grants and so forth, but the vast majority of our income. 90% plus comes from commercial revenue.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So what was the impetus for creating autonomy works? One of the things we have in common is that we’re business guys, right.
We spent a lot of our. Lives decades of our lives, you know, in a for-profit environment. I unlike yourself and straddling the, not for profit for profit world. And here you’ve taken a big leap of faith. Five, six years ago to start this organization.
David Friedman: When, uh, when students with disabilities turned 14 and a half, the school system starts a process called transition planning.
This is to look at what the child is going to do after high school. And Matt has a lot of talents, but he probably wasn’t going to be successful in a traditional college environment. Just doesn’t have the social skills, the executive functioning skills to be successful in that environment. But he has a lot of talents.
So my wife and I believe there had to be a, a job for him out there. And so at this time I started looking. And I looked around my network. Anytime I’d meet with someone like this, I would ask them, Hey, you got any ideas about this kid? And what I realized is there are very, very, very few jobs for adults with autism and the jobs that exist.
Don’t take advantage of their unique talents and skills. They’re stocking shelves, they’re clearing tables, they’re doing lower skill jobs, nothing that takes advantage of their talents. And so we realized that if these jobs were going to exist, we were going to have to create them. And, uh, Started looking for different business areas and locations where we could help and ultimately settled on marketing
David Hirsch: operations.
Okay. So who are you selling of your customers, who are the partner companies?
David Friedman: And we work with, um, different kinds of companies. We work with large publishers. So for example, Reddit, uh, which is one of the 20 biggest websites on the web, we review ads, we support their, um, advertising processes. We also work a lot for agencies or companies like Razorfish and Mediacom, where we help them set up campaigns on behalf of their clients.
David Hirsch: So what type of companies are you looking for? Somebody listening to this and are curious. To know if what you’re doing dovetails with the type of business that they’re in a leadership position and what type of businesses you’re looking for.
David Friedman: We started autonomy works in marketing services because I came out of marketing services.
It was a space I knew, understood, and where I had relationships, but the skills that are possessed by people with autism are much broader than just marketing services. So any industry that has. Process intensive work, transaction processing. Um, we’re detailed is important and we’re quality is important.
Um, our, uh, quality levels are extremely high and we work fast in industries where that’s a critical element. So financial industries. We think have a lot of potential health cares seem to have a lot of potential. And as we continue to build out our capabilities, we’re looking to expand beyond marketing services into other industries.
David Hirsch: So let’s be crystal clear for our listeners, David. Um, I’ve been to your offices. I’ve seen how you make the sausage. I’m really fascinated by this. Um, your employees, autonomy works. Employees come into your office, perform their work there. Not onsite from what I understand at a customer site. Um, so describe how that works.
David Friedman: Uh, correct. We have a D a single destination where all of our employees work there. A couple of reasons for that. Uh, one is that we are trying to learn as a. Growing business. And it’s useful to have everybody at one location because we can learn more, but also because it is helpful for our associates to be more productive.
One of the challenges for a lot of people with autism is there sort of a layer of anxiety that exists around them. And by coming to the same location, which is highly structured and consistent, we’re able to eliminate some of that anxiety. So their skills and talents can come through. We serve clients all around the country.
And uh, with all the digital communications capabilities, they send us work, we perform it, send it back. Some of our clients we’ve never met in person, but we’re able to serve them from our place in the West suburbs.
David Hirsch: So who are you looking for? Who are you looking to hire? I know they’re 18 to 35 year olds, but more
David Friedman: specifically at the only requirements for coming to work at autonomy works is that you have to be able to read.
You have to be able to sit for about an hour. All of our instructions are written. And so that’s why the reading requirement and then our work is at computers. And so you need to be able to sit at the computer. Beyond that. We have a process that introduces people to our organization. The first step is a job shadow.
People come in, they get to see the work. They get to meet the associates. They get to perform some of the work. And that’s the best way to see if there’s an initial match between someone’s interest and capabilities and what we do, if there is, they continue through the process. If not, then we borrow friends.
David Hirsch: Okay. So it’s not a good fit for everybody. It’s not a silver bullet. It’s not one size fits all. There are certain skillsets that you’re looking for and others that you might not be able to
David Friedman: autonomy works is going to be the best fit for people who are analytical, who like the computer who are processed.
Uh, focused and, uh, have high attention to detail.
David Hirsch: So with that in mind, what advice can you give parents that have a 14, 15, 16 year old who would be too young to be working at a ton of your works today, but to help them prepare to develop those skills the best.
David Friedman: Platform for learning the skills is to learn and understand the Microsoft office suite of products.
A lot of people will come to us and say, Oh, my kid loves the computer. But what they love on the computer is playing games and, you know, surfing the web and that’s not applicable for, for a business business situation. We’re working in Excel and we’re working in Microsoft word and PowerPoint. So anyone who can come in and has an understanding of the process flow used for those tools has a leg up when coming to autonomy works.
David Hirsch: Okay. That’s perfect. So share a couple of success stories either of the employees, or maybe from a parent’s perspective.
David Friedman: Every one of our associates has, has their own unique story, but there are a couple of them that I think stand out as to represent kind of the impact we’re trying to have. So one of our, one of our associates, Eric, um, he spent three years looking for a job after graduating from high school and transition, and he couldn’t find anything.
He had some summer volunteer jobs at a camp. But nothing that could turn into a permanent career or a living, living wage. He came to autonomy works. He went through the training program where first few months ultimately ended up on one of our teams and he’s outstanding. Some of the things that people with autism are able to do is take a thorough look at things and, and examine any mistakes that there may be in the material and what needs to be corrected.
One of the core members on our team, he’s a peer expert. So when his. Peers have questions on the topic. They come to him and he travels almost 90 minutes a day to get to autonomy works. He takes a bus and then two trains to get to our office. And that gives you a sense of how hard it was for him to find a job because he was willing to travel 90 minutes for, for a job.
And couldn’t find anything in that entire rate. I spent three years searching for jobs. I just kept on receiving an injection. After injection. Tommy works has given me goals to accomplish. I have developed in my independence. I have learned how to solve problems. And myself, and also I’ve learned how to travel along.
This is why myself, we are not that much different from others who may not have a disability. We are able to play a part in changing the world.
David Hirsch: I remember when I visited your office, that Matt is actually one of your employees. Tell me about that experience.
David Friedman: And Matthew has been working for us for. About three years now, he started when he was still in the transition program from the high school and working just a couple of days a week.
And now he works six days a week, including a lot of independent work on the weekends. And speaking as a father, it’s been fantastic. A lot of kids when they leave the school system and the transition programs. Look back to those environments. They’re very supportive. There’s, they’re highly structured and they look back to those and wish they could continue to be there.
But what autonomy works and what having a job has done for Matthew is it’s turned his focus forward. He’s thinking now about the future. He takes public transportation. He fakes his own lunch. He buys his own clothes and. He is very interested in future. For example, he’s a, he’s taking some classes at the college of debates, local community college, and he’s scheduled a meeting, uh, actually for next week where he wants to bring in potential classes to meet with me, our head of operations and his direct boss, so that we can give him advice on what classes will help them get more money and more hours at autonomy works.
And. When you think about your kid, that’s what you want your kid to. Do. You want them to think about bettering themselves and actions they can take to better themselves so that they can have a better life going forward?
David Hirsch: And as a followup to that, does he have a financial goal or a specific thing that he’s saving or is working toward?
David Friedman: He is, he wants to move out. So that’s his big goal. I think that wants to have some independence. He wants to have some independence. He wants to have more ability to make choices about how he spends his time and where he spends his time. And so that’s his, his big goal.
David Hirsch: Is that going to be a stretch on the umbilical cord?
Do you think.
David Friedman: Yeah, absolutely. I, I don’t think that we will have Matthew move out in one step. I think that a multistep, a transition period, that’s a really important element. I think of raising kids with special needs is things take longer. And so he might not move out for for 10 years, but that’s a process that we need to start now.
Thinking about how’s that going to work? What skills is he going to need to have in order to be able to move out? And I’m starting to build those skills in him so that the steps become smaller and smaller and eventually he can get to the end of the path. It was similar to thinking about him, graduating from what he was going to do after high school, he started that at 14 and a half.
He didn’t leave the school system until he was 22. And that gave us a lot of time to plan and try different things. And get to a point where when he was 22, we had the pieces in place.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Thank you for that insight. One of the stories that comes to mind is with a decoy who’s. This fell out Massachusetts.
Who’s a son. Rick is a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, nonverbal, and, uh, 56 years ago when Rick was born, there was no expectation that it would be more, any more than a vegetable. He graduates from high school. He actually graduated from college, Boston university. It took him nine years. It took him a long time.
Like you were saying, things just take a lot longer, but Rick spells one letter at a time using a computer device. And it was really important to Rick to move away, to go to school and then to live independently. Maybe not independently like you, and I might think about completely independently, but to live it independent from mom and dad and nurturing that interest, that curiosity, like I heard you saying that your dad and your grandpas, you know, sort of planted these seeds to be curious and to be thinking for yourself is something that you’ve been able to do with Matthew.
And I think that’s just extraordinary. And if there’s any secrets that you can share to other dads or other parents for. How do you go about doing that? Because I think that’s each one of our dreams is to have our children become independent. However you define independence so that they can lead a life that they want to leave.
David Friedman: We have believed very much from the beginning that Matthew can live independently. Like you say, there’s, he’s going to need guard rails and there’s guard rails. We’ll start pretty tight and hopefully broaden over time. But we’ve believed that. And we have had that expectation for him and we have worked towards it.
Matt responds to expectations just like everyone else does. And we have tried not to limit or reduce our expectations on him just because he has autism.
David Hirsch: So I’m just thinking about the age of your daughters. Stacy is 20. She’s probably moved out and she’s going to school. That might have an influence on that thinking, well, Stacy is going to college, right?
She’s going off and doing things on her own. And there’s these expectations that I want to be like my younger sister. And, uh, you’ve got two more. So the nest is going to be a little emptier as the years go by
David Friedman: very much so. And. Because we’ve kept the kids together as all our kids that our kids, the same and one family, he does get that kind of inspiration from his sisters that are talking about living independently.
And my daughter’s going to Spain. And then having that, talking about that,
David Hirsch: that’s correct. So, uh, just one other, uh, perspective, maybe, uh, some feedback that you’ve gotten from one or more of the parents about how this has transformed their son or daughter or their family. For that matter,
David Friedman: we just received a note actually from a parent of one of our, our employees earlier this week.
And she was talking about the changes she’s seen in her son in the time he’s worked for us. So he’s worked for us almost five years now. Some of the things we’re talking about. He takes public transportation. She said, I never would have thought he would ever take the train. And now he takes the train to work every day, he shops for all of his own clothes.
He chooses his own games. He buys, he goes grocery shopping. These were all things that she didn’t expect him to ever be able to do. But. By having a job by working with peers, by seeing this expectation of being a fully integrated member of society, he’s picking up those roles and learning and stressing himself to be able to do that.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So what’s your vision for a time? Maybe works. If you were to look down the road three years, five years, 10 years. What do you envision
David Friedman: in the short run in the next couple of years, we’re looking to build, we call it a service center, a single location in the Chicago area that employs something on the order of 150 people
David Hirsch: from how many do you have?
David Friedman: We have about 44.
David Hirsch: So you’re looking to not just double, but maybe.
David Friedman: Triple quadruple the business. So we’d like to get up to about 150 from a business perspective, we view that as a. A stand alone entity that we can then replicate in other markets. So we’re in the Western suburbs and that it could be replicating that in park Ridge on the North shore, it could be replicating that in st.
Louis or outside of New York or something like that. The idea is that this sort of hundred and 50 person unit can be created, um, lots of places around the country and ultimately around the world.
David Hirsch: So switching gears. Uh, what are some of the more important takeaways that come to mind about raising a child with differences?
David Friedman: Don’t give up. My, my son does things today that he never would have done five years ago. And there’s every reason to believe that in five years, he’s going to do things that he doesn’t do today. And that’s been true over and over and over again, your kid might learn differently. They might. Have different strengths and different weaknesses, but they can learn new things and they can do new things and you just have to be patient and to understand how they are going to grow and develop and to help them along that path.
David Hirsch: So why did you agree to be a mentor father as part of the special father’s network?
David Friedman: When we first realized that that Matt had, um, some sort of special needs, there were very few sources of support or help. I had very little understanding of what to expect of how he and our life might evolve over time.
And I think I could have made better decisions at some point earlier on in his life had had, I had some people to give me some advice about how to think about things. It took us a while to get ourselves sort of organized around how to raise him and are the rest of our family and the best way. And we made some mistakes along the way to do that.
And I think I have the opportunity. To hopefully share some of what I’ve learned and to help some other people not make those mistakes.
David Hirsch: You know, that’s fabulous. And you’ve been doing this, you know, for the last five or six years, formally through autonomy works, no doubt, mentoring other families directly or indirectly, and then informally.
You know, just because you, no doubt have met other families that have an autistic son or daughter who are a little bit younger than Matt at that point in time. And they’re curious to know, you know, how to get from this point to that point.
David Friedman: Very important. Part of autonomy works is sharing our story. And, uh, that’s both my story and my family’s story, as well as the story of the company.
David Hirsch: Uh, let’s give a special shout out to Josh Mintz at the John D and Katherine T MacArthur foundation for introducing us. So they’ve had, uh, such an influence in so many different ways, and I’m very thankful for that introduction. If somebody wants to get information on autonomy works to become a client or seek employment, where would they go and how would they contact you?
David Friedman: Probably the best way to reach us is through our website. Www autonomy.works. That is a lot more information about the company and an easy way to contact us.
David Hirsch: Great. David, thank you for taking the time and many insights as reminder, David is just one of the dads. Who’s agreed to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program.
Father raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21st century dads.org. Thanks again, David.
David Friedman: Thank you, David.
Tom Couch: The Special Father’s Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process.
New fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support. There’s sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids.
If you’re a father looking for support, or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org. That’s 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And thank you for listening to this Special Fathers Network podcast. Stories of fathers helping fathers.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network podcast was produced for 21st Century Dads by Couch Audio, and again, to find out more about the Special Fathers Network, go to 21stcenturydads.org, 21stcenturydads.org.