“We didn't want to reinvent the wheel -- we wanted to make it better,” says Greg Pitsenberger, a founding member of VIAble Ventures.
VIAble Ventures is ‘improving the wheel’ by “creating a program designed for many levels of autistic functionalities and skillsets to create viable work for adults with autism,” explains Greg. “Since the adults that we work with vary in ability, we are developing a unique system to remove the fine motor skills needed to make candles. This will allow every adult to have a work station specific to their capabilities. This has really been a great team effort on all levels of our organization and the community has really embraced this new program.”
The capitalized letters in VIAble represent the Virginia Institute of Autism, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit founded in 1996 centered around “helping people overcome the challenges of autism through innovative, evidence-based programs in education, outreach, and adult services,” as described in the Virginia Institute of Autism mission statement.
1 in every 59 children across the United States has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the formal name for autism, which the Center for Disease Control and Prevention describes as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” However, despite the more than 3.5 million estimated people living with autism in the US, support networks for autism, especially those for adults, continue to face challenges in their work.
Not only does the United States “still [lack] any reliable estimate of [the] prevalence of autism among adults,” according to the autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks, but the majority of autism-related costs stem from adults with autism, with an estimated $175-196 billion dollars in costs compared to $61-66 billion for children, making it even more vital to provide services to autistic adults. (Autism Society)
Greg and the rest of the VIAble Ventures team are stepping in to be another pillar supporting the autistic adult community.
In his previous role at the Department of Defense, Greg has had plenty of experience designing a variety of new initiatives. “I worked for the Department of Defense for 15 years,” Greg says, “and part of the work I did there was creating programs out of scratch.”
But eventually, Greg found himself wanting to do something else. “I have a close family member who is intellectually challenged, and they have struggled with work their entire life. I got to a point in my life where I wanted to change direction and get more involved with the autistic world because of that,” he elaborates. “So I made the jump over to working with the Virginia Institute of Autism.”
“When I talk to people and their families affected by these challenges -- because they impact the whole family -- you can actually see the pain and frustration that they’re going through,” Greg continues. “So seeing the happiness from the adults we work with who are having fun working, and seeing that glow from them and their families afterward… it has become an amazing piece of my life. That's why I'm here,” Greg says definitively.
At the University of Virginia’s Innovation Lab this summer, Greg has discovered the power of asking. “What I've really learned through the iLab is to just go ask. Just go, ‘Hey, do you know somebody that could help me do this?’ Or, ‘What are your thoughts on this?’ And you’ll find that when you’re doing something that you believe in, people will want to be a part of it,” he says.
Greg unfolds a story about how intensely the work he’s doing with his autistic adult team has touched him. “The very first time we made candles, one of my autistic adults that I was making a candle with had a big smile on her face. She asked if she could make one for her dad,” he recalls. “She had lost her mother when she was younger, and she wanted to make something special for her dad. And I thought ‘…Wow.’ Just that little moment in her life brought her and her dad so much joy. I feel that this program has the potential to help so many of these adults and their families,” Greg concludes enthusiastically.
You can learn more about VIAble Ventures and their mission through their parent institution, the Virginia Institute of Autism.
About The Team
Andy Rod: VIA Board of Directors
Ethan S. Long, Ph.D., BCBA-D: VIA Executive Director
Mark Seymour, M.Div: VIA Director of Adult Services
Greg Pitsenberger, B.A. (Cognitive Psychology): VIAble Ventures Program Coordinator
Note: This article was updated August 8th, 2018 at 1:49 PM with an updated VIAble Ventures logo and additional photos. All photos provided in this article are courtesy of VIAble Ventures and the Virginia Institute of Autism.