This is why many autistic individuals are passionate about creating systems change – Sharon Zivkovic

by Mirabelle Morah / July 2023

“If autistic social entrepreneurship was supported, autistic individuals would be able to focus on their monotropic interests”. – Sharon Zivkovic 

Sharon Zivkovic (Australia) is the Founder and CEO of Community Capacity Builders as well as the Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Wicked Lab. In 2022, she enrolled back into university to study a Master of Autism, thus ensuring that any initiatives she works on to support autistic social entrepreneurship are evidence-based. In this insightful and educative interview, Sharon reveals much there is to know from misconceptions surrounding neurodiversity to why autistic people are better placed to lead social enterprises focused on inclusion and autistic support.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in relation to promoting inclusion and supporting autistic individuals? 

I think there are two intertwined systemic challenges. One is the sector’s alignment with a charity model. In Australia, social enterprise is often promoted as sitting between charity and business. It sets the scene for disabled people to be seen as the recipients of services, rather than social entrepreneurs. There are different models of disability, including the outdated charity model and the internationally adopted human rights model which aligns with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The latter recognises the rights of people with disabilities to be supported in “self-employment, entrepreneurship, the development of cooperatives and starting one’s own business”.  If the social enterprise sector aligned itself with human rights, rather than a charity approach, promoting the inclusion and support of autistic social entrepreneurs would be a lot less challenging. 

The other challenge is the lack of recognition of the greater impact that could be achieved if we had people with lived experience leading change. Earlier this year the Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article about this challenge which was met with a deafening silence by the sector. While not all autistic-led social enterprises make improving the wellbeing of the autistic community as their overarching mission, there are many that do. For those autistic social entrepreneurs, it is their combined lived experience and accessing autistic service systems that provides them with unique insights for creating systems change.   

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a business focused on inclusion and supporting autistic individuals?

If the person is not autistic, I would recommend including autistic individuals in their governance structure. Increasingly it is expected that organisations focused on the inclusion and support of autistic individuals will be autistic-led. Recently in South Australia, our State Government appointed a director for a new Office for Autism within the Department of Premier and Cabinet and only autistic individuals were invited to apply. Autistic professionals are embracing this changing expectation and are promoting that they are autistic. For example, the autistic-led nonprofit, Thriving Autistic, has established a neurodivergent practitioners directory, autistic doctors have established Autistic Doctors International and the Autistic Professor’s website has an extensive listing of autistic autism researchers. In Australia, we are having discussions about taking the lead from Supply Nation’s verified Indigenous Business Directory and creating a verified Autistic Social Enterprise Directory.    

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If the person is autistic, I would advise them to connect with other autistic entrepreneurs. This year, in Australia, autistic social entrepreneurs and allies of the autistic social entrepreneurship movement have been getting together at events: the Victorian State Government’s StartSpace held an autistic social entrepreneurship event in February and the social enterprise Just Gold is facilitating an Autistic Economic Inclusion & Self-Determination session at this year’s Autistic Pride Day celebration.    

I would also let them know that while there is currently very little practical support for autistic entrepreneurs, this will be changing. In Australia, the Victorian Government’s Autism Plan has recognised business ownership and entrepreneurship as a way for autistic individuals to achieve economic independence; the Australian Senate Select Committee on Autism Inquiry report has recognised supporting autistic owned and led social enterprise as an approach for addressing autistic unemployment; and a recent social impact investing report emphasised that people with disability should be viewed as experts instead of beneficiaries, they should be embedded in governance structures and start-up accelerators and incubators should better cater to the needs of people with disability.

Sharon co-chairing stream 3 at the Academic Symposium in association with SEWF 2022
Sharon co-chairing stream 3 on “Complexity and Systems Change Approaches to Social Enterprise” at the Academic Symposium in association with SEWF 2022

What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about neurodiversity and about autistic people? 

The term neurodiversity is often misunderstood. We are all neurodiverse. Everyone’s brain functions differently. This is just part of human diversity. While we are all neurodiverse, there are patterns of brain functioning and development that are more common. People who have this more common brain type are considered to be neurotypical and people who do not are referred to as being neurodivergent. Neurodivergent people experience and interact with the world differently to neurotypical people and are often excluded because just about everything in the world has been designed and developed to cater to the needs of neurotypical people. My brain is neurodivergent, it works differently to the common brain type because I am autistic. This doesn’t mean that I have anything wrong with my brain. 

There are benefits of having an autistic brain for social entrepreneurship. Like many autistic individuals, my thinking is monotropic. Monotropism is the tendency to focus on one or a narrow number of interests with a high level of concentration. That often results in us having extensive knowledge and skill in our areas of interest. When ideas emerge from the extensive available facts that we have on a topic through bottom-up thinking they are generally infallibly accurate. These ideas emerge due to our associative thinking style ⏤ autistic individuals see patterns amongst all the detailed facts that we have on a topic and we can creatively develop new concepts and knowledge.   

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There are many misconceptions about autism. Many people think that every autistic person is the same, that they are antisocial, not empathetic, savants. Many think autism is an illness and every autistic person has an intellectual disability.  In reality, as with all people, every autistic person is unique. As the autistic academic and advocate, Dr Stephen Shore, once said, “If you’ve met one individual with Autism, you’ve met one individual with Autism”.  

Autism is also not linear, it’s a spectrum. There is also no such thing as high functioning and low functioning autism. While autistic people often have intense interests, can find communicating and socialising with non-autistic people challenging, have sensory needs, like predictable routines and have repetitive behaviours, autistic individuals express their autistic traits differently and they sometimes mask their autistic traits. 

In what ways can more people, businesses and the government support autistic social entrepreneurs?  

Creating enabling environments for autistic social entrepreneurs requires a much broader ecosystem than the traditional social enterprise one. For autistic social entrepreneurs to thrive, we need to bring together the lived experience of the autistic community, service providers and social enterprise support organisations. They will need to understand both autism and social entrepreneurship and they will need to make accommodations for autistic social entrepreneurs in their current service offerings. Individuals and organisation that provide business advice will need to accommodate the strengths and challenges of autistic social entrepreneurs, including adjusting their advisory services to a monotropic, bottom-up and associative thinking style. Addressing the barriers that autistic social entrepreneurs currently face, is going to require an ecosystem of very diverse support organisations that traditionally have not worked together to come together as an integrated system. In addition to making accommodations, they will need to manage the interface between autism support services and social enterprise support services so that autistic social entrepreneurs can be supported seamlessly. 

Addressing the challenge of creating an enabling environment for autistic social entrepreneurs has become a monotropic interest of mine. Last year I went back to university to study for a Master of Autism to ensure that any initiatives I worked on to support autistic social entrepreneurship were evidence based. Community Capacity Builders and Wicked Lab will soon be launching some of the initiatives that we have been working on.  Community Capacity Builders has established a Centre for Autistic Social Entrepreneurship that will be delivering a Program for Supporting Autistic Social Entrepreneurs and a Programme for Mentoring Autistic Social Entrepreneurs. Wicked Lab has developed a new Systemic Landscape of Practice Lab that brings together people with lived experience, service delivery organisations, the social enterprise sector and others that can provide support to address complex issues. 

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Why is supporting autistic social entrepreneurship important?  

It is such a great opportunity for autistic individuals, the social enterprise sector and the world. And it gives autistic people a way to make a living and accommodate their needs. In Australia, the unemployment rate for autistic individuals is 34.1 per cent, which is more than three times the rate for people with a disability. In the UK fewer than 3 autistic individuals in 10 are in work. Last year the Australian Senate Select Committee Inquiry on Autism reported that generic disability initiatives do not cater to the sensory and communication challenges that autistic people face and that the few autism-specific employment programmes that do exist predominantly focus on information and communications technology (ICT).   

Autistic autism researchers and activists are starting to speak out about the need to move beyond pigeonholing autistic people into ICT positions and to recognise the enormous potential of having autistic individuals, with their unique thinking style, engaged in addressing some of the world’s most pressing issues. With the Australian Senate Select Committee Inquiry on Autism highlighting the opportunity to address autistic unemployment by supporting autistic owned and led social enterprise, we now have a perfect policy window to advance autistic social entrepreneurship. 

If autistic social entrepreneurship was supported, autistic individuals would be able to focus on their monotropic interests. Many autistic individuals are passionate about creating systems change towards greater equality, fairness and social justice. They would be able to use their lived experience with social and economic challenges to develop strategies that are relevant and effective for improving the social and economic outcomes for autistic people. Currently, the average life expectancy of an autistic individual is only 39 years. Starting a social enterprise would enable autistic individuals to sidestep the bias and discrimination that they often encounter when seeking employment. It would also enable them to reduce the sensory sensitivities and social interaction that often cause them distress in the workplace as they would have more control over their work environment. 

Mirabelle Morah is the community and communications manager at SEWF