How one design company celebrates talent across the spectrum
In the hands of Kathy Borkowski, Jacquie Mahan and Meghan Klein, “awesome” has become a mantra. At their Grove City studio for The Awesome Co., the people and the vibe are awesome. Veggies are awesome. So are sleepovers and animals with glasses and Gloria Steinem. Those are just some of the sentiments printed on apparel and accessories under their brand of eternal optimism. When you wear one of their shirts or carry one of their organic totes, you join many other ambassadors of awesome, who hail from as far away as Australia.
Mahan and Borkowski conceived The Awesome Co., a for-profit design studio employing people on the autism spectrum, over lunch while discussing the universal “I just want the best for my kids” parenting refrain. Happiness. Financial stability. A fulfilling career. For their respective sons, that wish list was fraught with additional uncertainty.
Borkowski—the COO and an exceedingly warm woman who thinks warrior moms and hammocks are awesome—had founded and operated schools and therapy centers for kids on the autism spectrum after her son, now 18, was diagnosed with the neurodevelopmental disorder. Her drive? Greater control over his education, therapies and opportunities, because the support resources for children on the spectrum often end at adulthood.
“They age out,” Borkowski says. “And while many can hold jobs for years, when a procedure or a supervisor changes, they're unable to adapt and they get fired.”
Borkowski had run the school Mahan's son, Lincoln, attended, which is how Mahan—who's the CEO and thinks soft rock is awesome—met her soon-to-be business partner. When Lincoln was 22 months old, his diminishing eye contact and lack of speech forced her to reckon with his diagnosis. With help, he's now a flourishing 8-year-old who prefers Teddy Roosevelt to Spiderman, and he wants to be the first president with autism. “That showed me he's proud of who he is,” Mahan says. “And that's so badass.”
The Awesome Co. was a natural extension of Borkowski's advocacy, molded to provide meaningful, long-lasting employment for adults who are capable yet face challenges with social interaction, communication, sensory processing and repetitive behaviors. Borkowski, Mahan and Klein, the company's co-founder and creative director, don't interview job-seekers. They just have casual conversations to reduce what can be overpowering anxiety for those with autism. The founders also design jobs that cater to employees' individual “superpowers.”
Brendan Pratt, the company's first employee, started in February 2017. He's 36 and his superpower is organization.
“This is my first job,” Pratt says. “I'm not one of those guys who can juggle huge math equations, but I can organize inventory and streamline things here. I had help figuring out my role and the limits,” he says, “but once I did, I started having a sense of accomplishment. And I love the people.”
Another employee, Sarah Studer, assembles accessory pins. She uses the term “disability” in air quotes. She wants Autism Awareness Month to be Autism Acceptance Month. “Most people on the spectrum just want to be accepted,” she says. Not bullied. Not made out to be weird because their “wires are connected a little differently.”
“We're not broken,” she says. Indeed, everyone here is awesome. For reassurance, they need only look around them.
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