As part of our Generation 2014 series, Adam Harris of AsIAm shares his experience with SEI as an Elevator Awardee for the last year. Changing Ireland and reducing the stigma for people on the Autism spectrum, AsIAm has ambitious goals and clear objectives to achieve their mission.
Sitting down to write this almost feels surreal. It is very hard to believe that nearly 1 year has passed since AsIAm was selected as an Elevator Awardee for 2014. If times flies when you are having fun, I think it flies twice as fast when you are working hard, and that is probably why we literally did not feel the year go by. Where we are now is totally unrecognisable from where we were last year, and so much of this is to do with the support, counsel and credibility, which Social Entrepreneurs Ireland has brought to our work.
This time last year we were a newly launched organisation, with a strong mission and vision for what Ireland should be like for people with Autism, but still trying to work out what our role was and how we could play a focused part in bringing this about. We had no staff, no office and the reach of our organisation remained very small. Our only funding, and indeed prospect of funding, was table quizzes and race nights.
Fast forward 12 months and I am now the full-time CEO for an organisation which also has a part-time community manager. We are based in DogPatch Labs, a hub for tech startups in Ireland and we have a clear sense of what we can do to make this country more inclusive of people with Autism. We have a growing team of volunteers and supporters committed to making that vision a reality.
How did this happen? Well, lots of different opportunities, approaches and planning helped us develop to this point but a common thread that seems to run through them all is SEI.
On winning a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Award, I received coverage on national radio and online publications like “The Journal”, which resulted in an invitation to the “The Saturday Night Show”, which brought unprecedented interest and support to our work. This vehicle for change has enabled us to develop a network and a reach much greater than before.
As a very young CEO and Social Entrepreneur, fundraising has been a challenge for a range of reasons – perceptions play a part, and so does experience and confidence. However, SEI levelled the playing field to some degree for AsIAm. Other funders and grant-making organisations were no longer being asked to make an independent, in depth assessment and be the first to back a new concept – rather they could take a measured risk in supporting us, knowing that a very credible organisation had already assessed our potential. This led to us being able to significantly increase funding to the organisation. We are still small and still have to work very hard to access funding. However, there is no doubt we would struggle full stop if it were not for SEI boosting our reputation and giving me the skills to apply for grants and have conversations with potential funders.
As a Social Entrepreneur working in the area of Autism, I am very much emotionally invested in the issue. As a young person with Aspergers Syndrome, it makes me angry to see the challenges people with the condition are facing – 50% bullied while still in school, 80% unemployment and a significantly higher rate of self-harm – all challenges which are not necessarily a part of an Autism diagnosis, but are often brought on by the attitudes of society towards people with the condition. I am determined to change this and I passionately believe we can, by empowering the community with a dedicated, online information service and engaging the public at the same time. I believe similar approaches have helped advance many other issues in Ireland in the past but I feel we have ignored the societal piece and that this is what we must now focus on.
However, all that said, when you are emotionally involved in an issue it is easy to want to change the world overnight or to attempt to solve every single issue. Indeed, I would even say this is normal for many social entrepreneurs. However, it led me at times to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. Autism is such a large field you need to pick an area of focus and work to change that. We are the only organisation working for a societal understanding of Autism, and this is where we must focus.
In reflection, I would never have been able to get to this point of focus and determination without the fantastic counsel of SEI and my mentor, Eamonn. In 12 months we have come from a point of well-intentioned campaigning to a more focused, professional organisation which will soon produce its first 3 year strategy – a strategy I hope will sow the seeds of change for people with Autism. This highlights how SEI is about a lot more than just grants, but rather their help and focus has been a huge support in bringing us to this point.
Of course, we have a very long way to go. We have still not established solid lines of funding, we still are testing our programmes in schools, community and online – and they will take time to perfect.
We are still honing our message and our vision but the crucial point is – we are on our way!
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