Last month we celebrated OAR’s 20th birthday. At this time two decades ago, OAR was three weeks old, and Mike Maloney and I had driven to Baltimore to pitch OAR to Dr. Peter Gerhardt. After a few beers, Peter readily accepted the challenge to lead OAR’s Scientific Council, and Mike and I headed back to Virginia delighted to have the first key building block for OAR successfully in place.
Peter got right to work selecting and recruiting autism professionals from across the United States to join our fledgling organization. He recalls now with great pride and continued amazement that every single person he contacted said yes without hesitation. And they didn’t waste any time getting started. Before 2002 was over, the Scientific Council had conducted the first Applied Research Competition, and OAR had awarded its first two research grants. Even more remarkable is that seven of the original 12 members continue to serve on OAR’s Scientific Council today.
The Green Straw
Peter and I had been friends for years before that meeting in Baltimore. I consulted with him often as my then wife and I navigated the early childhood and school challenges our daughter and son with autism faced. One occasion remains especially memorable and instructive.
My son, James, is the youngest of four children. In his early years when he started school, one of his favorite things to do was hold and feel a green straw from Starbucks. It was his fidget toy before there were fidget toys.
One year in elementary school, James’ teachers thought they would help him by getting him to give up the ever present green straw. I was not quite sure how to respond to this, so I explained the situation to Peter and asked his advice. After a brief pause, Peter smiled and said, “Tell them that we should all be so lucky to have a green straw in our lives.” I did, and James kept his green straw, which he loves to this day.
Peter’s response to me about the green straw foreshadowed the philosophy and values we would later adopt for OAR. When we evaluate research studies each year, “meaningful outcomes” carry great weight. We ask, “How relevant are the study’s anticipated outcomes to the everyday experiences of autistic individuals?” More broadly, we ask that same question about every program or resource we produce, and you can see the imprint of this philosophy in every accomplishment of our first 20 years. We set out to raise money, fund research, and ultimately change lives, and that’s what we have done.
OAR’s Vision and Goals
- Continue the Applied Research Competition and the Graduate Research Grant Programs.
- Award 18 to 20 research grants annually, totaling $3 million over the next 10 years.
- Identify and establish research areas for special OAR focus and dedicated funding separate from the currently established research programs.
- Continue to extend the reach of the Kit for Kids Peer Education and Acceptance Program with a goal to share the message with at least 175,000 more children by 2031.
- Continue to maintain and upgrade all current Life Journey Through Autism guides and the resources for military families and siblings.
- Continue to leverage technology for broader and more effective education via webinars, online resources, and structured curricula.
- Develop an array of resources specifically focused on quality of life topics for autistic adults.
- Continue to expand the reach of the Hire Autism adult employment program, with a goal of providing employment support to more than 15,000 autistic job seekers.
- In coordination with employers, develop a more robust and evolving battery of resources and training supports to eliminate barriers to employment and contribute to more welcoming workplaces for autistic employees.
- Build upon the skills training potential of the new Synchrony Tech Careers Scholarship Program to give autistic job seekers the opportunity to seek or maintain meaningful employment and advancement.
- Continue annual awards for the Schwallie Family, Lisa Higgins Hussman, and two Synchrony scholarships.
- Award 75 scholarships or more each year, totaling $2.25 million over the next 10 years
- Establish the OAR Scholars Society open to all scholarship recipients to serve as a professional support group for those autistic adults as well as a group that can advise and support OAR’s initiatives on behalf of autistic adults in general.
OAR’s Green Straw Vision
These goals may seem pretty ambitious, but are they ambitious enough? I say let’s challenge OAR’s leadership, myself included, to expand our focus, programs, and resources to more fully include autistic individuals and support for their quality of life. To begin realizing that vision, we will form a working group to identify where and how OAR might be able to lend its support. The working group’s task will be to develop the concept and present an implementation plan to our Board when we meet next in November 2022. In simplest terms, the goal for the working group, as it is for OAR leadership and staff, is to help each autistic person fully enjoy the green straw in their lives.
Thank you again for your support for OAR during our first 20 years! I welcome your participation and support as we continue to raise money, fund research, and change lives for 10 more years and beyond.