SEEDs for Autism: Promoting Growth from Learning to Earning

SEEDs for Autism is an Arizona social enterprise that provides a path from “learning to earning” for young adults with autism through education, vocational training and social development.

Founder and director Mary Ann LaRoche created SEEDs out of love for her younger brother, Paul Robert Foti, who was diagnosed with autism in the early 1970s. Mary Ann often felt helpless as she watched Paul and the difficulties he regularly faced in employment and mainstreaming within his community. His job placements were generally menial jobs that were lower than his intellectual capabilities and in anxiety-inducing environments like loud kitchens or hot laundry rooms. In addition, he was usually paired with job coaches who weren’t adequately trained to understand his behaviors. Occasionally, the stress of these jobs would trigger him and he would be sent home. However, despite these obstacles, Paul continued to work, even keeping a journal to help relieve stress.

When Paul wasn’t at work, he was busy creating scenes, buildings and other items for his train set. It was his joy and passion to design and build his accessories and layouts with his own hands, self taught from hours spent in the library reading. This was a huge inspiration for Mary Ann, who began to dream about creating a safe, loving work environment that would nurture his passions and allow him to be himself. It was out of this desire that SEEDs for Autism came to be. Sadly, Paul passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010, just a few months after SEEDs opened its doors to the community. But it is in their daily work that his love and legacy live on.

Today, SEEDs for Autism provides support for those on the autism spectrum who have aged out of the school systems and are left without resources for continued support and training.  This life changing program mentors participants and provides them with hands-on opportunities to practice life, social and vocational skills. Participants learn how to advocate for themselves, work alongside others, grow in self-esteem and build unique, high-quality products that are sold in the community. 

SEEDs for Autism operates out of the understanding that each diagnosis is as individual as the person and no two people share the same journey. Diversity, communication struggles, processing language and ideas, anxiety and various levels of coping skills add to the complexity of interacting with others and finding employment. SEEDs works to coach and familiarize individuals to better engage with their peers and community, often using visual aids and other alternative learning resources.

Program participants are taught social and vocational skills through the creation of handmade jewelry, soaps, garden tools and accessories and home goods. The revenue generated from the sales of these products is reinvested to support the program. Students also have the chance to connect the customers that purchase their items, as well as the opportunity to learn a variety of business skills, including marketing, customer service, distribution, finances, and inventory. SEEDs hopes to continue to expand their product sales and have recently opened a screen printing department that will make customized company and school t-shirts.

Everyday, SEEDs for Autism sees the benefits and successes of their students as they become empowered to express themselves, work alongside their peers and grow in independence. Many participants even pursue employment outside the organization using the skills they developed through the program. One success story is a young lady who originally had a history of self-esteem struggles. Through the SEEDs program, she was encouraged to take on additional leadership roles and responsibilities, all of which built her confidence and empowered her to seek outside employment. She was recently hired at Sprouts, an organic grocery store. Another young lady was recently hired at Amazon. When she first joined the SEEDs program, she had difficulty interacting and working with her peers. Today, she is eager to help herself and others and is an asset to her community. By giving her more responsibility and helping her work through areas that were difficult conceptually or physically, she now has more patience for herself and is open to trying new things. 

SEEDs for Autism has become a safe haven for many individuals who need a place to continue to grow, learn and be understood; a place where failure doesn’t exist, and where differences are celebrated.

To learn more about Seeds for Autism, check out their member directory profile.

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