Marked by a variety of characteristics, innovation can be found in multiple disciplines. But all innovators set out in front of the pack, bushwhacking a trail where none exists. Innovative organizations and projects bring outside-the-box thinking to problems or present a refreshing take on the status quo.
Xpress sought to find those clearing the path for our community’s future and put out a call for the public to nominate innovators. We received a total of 41 nominations and, through a process of several in-house jury deliberations, arrived at the eight we profile in this special issue. It wasn’t easy. And the runners-up made us deliberate if we should even feature more.
Xpress is proud to present Asheville’s Innovators. We hope their actions inspire you to innovate in your corner of Western North Carolina.
— Xpress Asheville Innovator jury: Edwin Arnaudin, Jeff Fobes, Dan Hesse, Max Hunt, Carolyn Morrisroe, Tracy Rose and Gina Smith
Centering on Children Inc., ShoeboxTasks
Ron Larsen, owner/general manager
Describe your organization/project.
Incorporated in the mid-1990s, Centering on Children began manufacturing ShoeboxTasks beginning-level educational activities, designed primarily for children on the autism spectrum. These activities have also been used by developmentally challenged adults, dementia patients, the blind and normally developing preschool children. Manufacturing ShoeboxTasks, and the many facets this entails, is the primary purpose of Centering on Children. However, an equally important part our mission is to provide employment for individuals on the autism spectrum, who assemble, package and prepare for shipment the activities in our vocational workshop here in Asheville.
Why is this needed in the Asheville area, and how does it make a difference?
We serve the Asheville area in several ways. The workshop, much like ShoeboxTasks themselves, exemplifies a visually structured environment organized in a way that enables our autistic employees to work independently with a minimum of guidance. This model workshop has been used as a resource by families, educators, therapists and professionals, both locally and worldwide.
Historically, a number of our autistic workers have developed skills and confidence in our shop and then have moved on successfully to other jobs in the community. We don’t want to hold anyone back who is capable of doing more, so independent progress is encouraged. For the purpose of determining job placement potential, I have provided informal assessments and consultations to other local agencies when asked. The activities are also used by occupational therapists and vocational therapists to assess various developmental skills as part of an overall plan to further the individual’s progress.
Centering on Children is committed to paying a living wage. Most of our nonautistic employees are single mothers, so flexible scheduling has been key to maintaining harmony in the workplace.
What was your epiphany/eureka moment for this organization?
In the early 1990s, I was working as a therapist with the NC TEACCH program (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-related Handicapped Children) in Asheville. Part of my job description at the time was to demonstrate to parents ways in which they could work with their newly diagnosed autistic children. Parents observed these work sessions through a one-way mirror. There was one particularly challenging child who would not respond to any of my efforts for the entire sweat-inducing 30-minute session. I was at a loss! During the following week and prior to the next session, I played around with cardboard shoeboxes (discards from Tops for Shoes) and came up with a design for four activities. I nervously presented them to this same child at the next session. To my delight and relief, he engaged with the tasks and did each one perfectly. The goal of the activity seemed to be self-evident when presented as a one-unit design. The child actually enjoyed doing them! From then on, the whole nature of my work sessions changed. My colleagues encouraged me to present the tasks and my findings at TEACCH’s annual conference in Chapel Hill. Knowing that many teachers would be present, I was motivated to experiment further and designed a total of 16 ShoeboxTasks with a gradual progression in difficulty. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and from there, it seemed natural to try to manufacture them. Thus, the seed for the business had been planted.
What was the inspiration that made you take the leap from cool, cutting-edge idea to implementing it?
I may have had the original idea, but it took the community to make the business a reality. If I knew then what I now know about the details of setting up a manufacturing workshop, I may never have taken that leap. My wife, Linda, became the project’s biggest supporter, lending her skills to every aspect of the project, from refining the presentation of the activities to locating the many individual parts needed to put them together. We contracted a local machine shop to cut the plastic lids of the shoeboxes into the various configurations needed for the different tasks. Eventually, we invested in a ShopBot computer numerical control router. Our son, Nick, a genius with machines, programmed the equipment so that now all the lids are cut in-house. Linda has been my partner not only in the formation of the business but also in its sustained success over the years. Close friends and family were also invaluable in bringing the initial vision forward into a business. We hired several UNC Asheville students and an autistic man with his job coach, and using our garage as a workshop, we began the manufacturing process of ShoeboxTasks. With the words “problem-free area” on the floor of the shop, we averted many potential disturbances in this limited space.
What do you think makes it innovative?
Centering on Children is the sole source provider for these activities. Was I the first person to ever put this concept into practice? Who’s to say? What I did do was create a credible design and product based on the perceived needs of young autistic children first entering the educational arena. I think of ShoeboxTasks as activities for children learning how to learn. Over the years, they have proved to be effective educational tools for getting children off to a good start and have also been used as models for teachers to see what type of physical structure makes sense to the young autistic mind. As far as I know, there was nothing else like this available before ShoeboxTasks.
How is it working now?
During the 21 years Centering on Children has been in business, there has been slow and steady growth within the United States that has expanded to a presence in over 26 countries. Through a collaborative process with Skyline Plastics in Mills River, we now have our own mold. Although we have not pursued any major marketing strategies, we do have a strong website presence. Mostly, ShoeboxTasks has grown by word-of-mouth — from local to worldwide — testifying to their efficacy and value. The Asheville workshop has become a destination place for professionals who work in the autism field. Our Facebook page is monitored by an individual on the autism spectrum who daily addresses issues related to this population.
Since 2009, we have developed a close, collaborative relationship with an autism center in Rome, Italy: Collina Storta. Several of its staff have come to Asheville for training, spending time at our workshop as well as training in a model autism classroom at Koontz Intermediate School. I have also given several talks in Rome, consulting to their program. From very humble beginnings, ShoeboxTasks continues to serve families and schools in places we have sometimes had to look up on a map to find their location. We also donate activities to programs in particular need, finding this type of exchange as valuable to the well-being of our company as money.
What are your goals for the project in the future?
Employment is a huge problem for the autistic population. Centering on Children is limited as to how many autistic employees it can employ effectively. Several years ago, Adam, Linda and myself created a documentary titled Neurotypical (a term used by autistics to describe so-called normal people). In it, autistic individuals talk about autism and how it has affected their lives. The documentary was well-received, accepted into a number of film festivals and ultimately bought by PBS’ “Point of View,” where it has a nationwide audience. It can now be streamed through Amazon. We plan to use Centering on Children as a jumping-off point for a second documentary dealing with the challenges individuals on the spectrum have when seeking employment. There is such a huge pool of talented people who are ready and willing to work who may be somewhat intimidated by the prospect of working in a neurotypical environment. Potential employers need to be educated and to develop a greater awareness of the resources of this population. It’s often a case of making simple adaptations to the workplace and also to gain a compassionate understanding of the social needs of the autistic person that can mean the difference between success or failure. I find myself inadvertently becoming more and more involved in an advocacy role for employment challenges faced by autistics. There is a great need for someone to take this project on!
How is what you’re doing different from what others (people, organizations) are doing to solve this problem?
We have such a unique situation in that we manufacture activities designed for children on the autistic spectrum that are put together and packaged by adults on the autistic spectrum. Therein lies the main difference. I’m sure we aren’t the only ones, but Centering on Children strives to make environmentally conscious choices throughout the entire process.
What advice do you have for people trying to use innovation to foster change in the community?
First of all, I believe that innovation is not something you can try to do. I did not know I was an innovator until someone else put that tag on me. I was interested and invested in my work, and out of that came an idea that worked. And because it worked, it was worth pursuing. It also captured the attention of those around me, and they encouraged the further development of the idea. To me, an innovation does not happen in the void. I would encourage people to view challenges in whatever endeavor they may be involved as opportunities for innovation and change. Over the years, Centering on Children has experienced much internal innovation and change as it has grappled with challenges that have arisen as part of the natural rhythm of growth. I expect this dynamic process to continue.