Nurturing growth and inclusion during Autism Acceptance Month

There’s a time-honored adage that says April showers bring May flowers. This April, as we celebrate Autism Acceptance Month, I would like to suggest a parallel notion of how nourishing a seed planted in the fertile soil of community enhances the health and overall well-being of Southwest Florida and contributes to our collective strength and resilience.

As president and co-founder of Family Initiative, a nonprofit organization that serves children and young adults diagnosed on the autism spectrum, along with families engaged by the child welfare system, I’m thinking about how, together, we can open the doors of opportunity for growth among not only those on the spectrum, but also the workforce that underpins our economy.

David Brown
David Brown

Those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are just like you and me in fundamental ways. They want to be happy and fulfilled. They want to lead their best lives. They seek human connection. Employment plays a crucial role in all of those, enhancing their overall quality of life by providing a degree of financial independence, a sense of purpose, along with social interaction and personal growth. Employment means more than a job. It means they have the chance to contribute to the economy, support local businesses, and actively participate in the community, fostering a sense of civic responsibility and pride.

Nationally, only 21% of people with disabilities, including autism, are employed, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that measure is sobering, the outlook improves dramatically for people with ASD who participate in workforce development programs such as those we offer at Family Initiative. Half of autistic youth in the U.S. who partake in those programs begin their journey to successful employment in high school as they mature into adulthood. Working to meet those needs, Family Initiative’s Thrive Academy, a high school for students on the autism spectrum, offers individualized academics tailored to each student’s unique requirements as well as workforce training to prepare them for employment.

One of our success stories, closing the circle of employment preparation to job opportunities, is in partnership with the Lee County Tax Collector's Office, with whom we have launched an employment program. It’s a wonderful collaboration that offers young adults on the spectrum the opportunity to gain professional experience, skills and mentoring while they serve as shining examples for their peers of the game-changing potential in their lives and in the community.

As the vision of community leaders like Lee County Tax Collector Noelle Branning explore every avenue to strengthen their teams as they champion inclusion and opportunity for all, we become a more welcoming, more vibrant community.

I’m heartened by the comments of parents of young adults on the spectrum who have participated in the program. “This woman has come so very far! She’s amazing! And so are all of the other young adults participating with Family Initiative and the county program.” And another mom said, “I am proud of her. And you and your organization are the angels God has given to her. A song I love is called 'Angels Among Us' by Alabama! That is what you are to her. Thank you so much!”

While such family feedback does our hearts good,  we have much work yet to do. Employment helps our young adults become more self-sufficient and confident in their dreams. In partnership with our state leaders, the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities, community stakeholders, and our amazing families, we look forward to expanding inclusion and crucial support for individuals on the autism spectrum.

On behalf of those we serve, we offer our sincere thanks and gratitude for your support of Family Initiative and the autism community, and we would like to invite businesses and other organizations to partner with us to foster inclusion in the workplace.

With all of us opening our hearts, our minds and our doors of opportunity, we can  elevate lives as we help to fortify our shared future. If you would like to learn more, please visit us at, email, or call (239) 910-0712.

David Brown, LCSW,  is president/co-founder of Family Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Southwest Florida that serves children and adults diagnosed on the autism spectrum, along with families engaged by the child welfare system.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Nurturing growth and inclusion during Autism Acceptance Month