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What Autism Taught Me About Entrepreneurship: 6 Lessons

I’m the father of twin boys with autism. I’m also an entrepreneur. April was autism awareness month, so I spent time reflecting on my family’s journey.

It struck me that parenting children with autism has taught me many lessons; the lessons helped me grow as a person and also allowed me to become a better entrepreneur.

Before I dive into each lesson, let me set the stage. My twin sons, Isaac and Noah, received their autism diagnosis in 2003 at the age of 22 months. Our life was changed forever—mostly for the better.

Isaac & Noah Rouw
Isaac & Noah as babies. (Cute, huh?)

I won't spend too much time on my family background, but we’re a prolific crew, so there are several places online where you can learn more about us. My wife, Tyann, has a blog and so does my son Noah. We were also featured in an article in our local newspaper in 2006.

Here are six lessons I have learned from my journey with autism that have made me a better entrepreneur. They just happen to spell the word autism—how lucky is that?

Ask
Unite
Tenacity
Instinct
Stockdale Paradox
Miracles

Ask

One thing we quickly learned after the twins’ diagnosis is people are not going to flock to your door offering help. If it does happen, it’s usually temporary or, often, not the type of help you really need.

We learned you have to ask for help—from friends, family, people you don't know, doctors, etc. However, asking is different from begging, whining, or threatening. Asking means stating exactly what you need. You may have to ask multiple times.

This lesson applies for entrepreneurs. Starting a business is tough, so suck up your pride and ask for help. I have learned people are generous with their time, ideas, and resources. Just remember—no one owes you anything, don't keep score, and return or pay the favor forward whenever you can.

Unite

Soon after Isaac and Noah received their diagnosis, a team of professionals from the local Area Education Agency descended on our home to evaluate the boys and help form a plan. The group collectively came up with solutions for all kinds of problems that no single person could have solved.

My wife and I attended our local autism support group. We met some great families and made some life-long friends from being part of this group. Each family had their own challenges, but we could help each other in some way.

During my years at Far Reach we have also seen the huge value in being part of different groups. My partner, Kate Washut, was integral in helping start TechBrew Cedar Valley. Another partner, Chad Feldmann, has helped get Startup Drinks and Barcamp started in the Cedar Valley. We also attend conferences such as Big Omaha and Big Des Moines. 

Find groups or events that allow you to talk to other entrepreneurs. We all have our own challenges, but often we can learn from each another.

Tenacity

Being a parent of kids on the autism spectrum means you need to be the advocate for your child. Being an advocate implies tenacity, persistence, and perseverance. Learning and implementing this has been challenging.

I grew up wanting to please everyone and wanting most everyone to like me. I quickly learned to stop caring so much about what other people thought about me. We did what was right for our kids—we stood up for them and our family. We didn't let people push us into decisions we didn't think were right.

If you’re running a startup or established company, you have to be tenacious. Be tenacious in all parts of your business.
  • Marketing: Stay in front of people. Let them know about you and the value you provide.
  • Learning: Don't ever stop learning. Know everything you can about your industry.
  • Hiring: Fight to bring on good people and work like crazy to hang on to them.
You will need to share your story repeatedly. Run the marathon instead of the sprint.

Instinct

One thing we have learned over the years with our kids is to trust your gut when making decisions. Research, talk to other parents, and then use your instinct to make the best decision possible for your child. Not every decision will be right, but if you trust your instinct you’ll end up with the right one more often than not.

 As an entrepreneur, you’re faced with decisions every day. My advice is to research, talk to others, draw upon past experiences, and then make the best decision for you and your company. You will never have all of the information you need, so trust your gut. 

Stockdale Paradox

In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins describes something called the Stockdale Paradox. Click one of the links below to learn more, but the gist of the Stockdale Paradox is: You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time… You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Rouw boys
My three guys, last fall, watching go-karts. From left - Henry, Noah, and Isaac.

My wife and I faced the brutal facts about our journey with autism. My kids have autism and always will (to some extent). We faced countless meltdowns, sleepless nights, and other things that really stunk. 

In the early days, each day was challenging. The goal was to get the kids the help they needed and retain our sanity. We took them to school, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, the chiropractor, and doctor appointments. It was relentless. 

Despite the daily struggles, my wife and I had a long term vision for our kids. We knew the work we put in each day would pay off in the end. 

After many years, our kids have improved immensely. Noah has started his own blog, which you should check out. (I’m a proud dad.) Isaac is functionally non-verbal, but is a rock star at his school.

Starting and running a company is not easy. Many days, weeks, and months are difficult. There are periods where you have to suck it up and get the work done or face whatever challenge is in front of you at the moment. 

The key lesson is whatever you are doing each day should move you towards your long term goals. As I said before, running a company is not a sprint; it’s a marathon—although sometimes it feels as if we are sprinting the marathon. Links:

http://www.jimcollins.com/media_topics/brutal-facts.html
http://www.ndoherty.com/stockdale-paradox/
James Stockdale:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stockdale 

Miracles

Our family will always be living with autism. It is part of who we are. We deal with it every day and it is not going away anytime soon. It is easy to get discouraged when thinking about what life might be like 10 or 30 years from now for your child. 

We have always celebrated the little miracles in our family. Don't wait for the cure before you can celebrate. There are opportunities every day to celebrate. In our family we have celebrated many milestones, including:
  • Your child sleeps through the night—every night.
  • You receive a great report from the teacher.
  • Your functionally non-verbal son says "Mom" with both "M" sounds.
  • Your family can go to a park and have a picnic.
  • Your child is discharged from special education.
  • Your son was chosen by his class for a quiz bowl and kicks butt.
Running a business should be no different. Don't wait for a round of funding, a product launch, or a new client to celebrate, although these are definitely reasons for celebration.  Find little miracles each day that keep you and your staff moving forward.

At Far Reach we do our best to celebrate, including: 
  • Team lunch for employee birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Completion of a project—adding the project to our "done wall."
  • A compliment or thank you from a client.
Far Reach Done Wall
At Far Reach, we post images of our finished projects on the Done Wall. (It's gotten more crowded since we took this photo!)

My wife and I always say if given the opportunity, we would not change the fact that our sons have autism. Our kids are great teachers and seem to have a positive impact on most people they meet. I am blessed to be part of two great families that teach me lessons every day.