Matt Asner speaks to the Art of Autism about his move from Autism Speaks to Autism Society of America, his family and his vision for the future.
By Debra Muzikar
You are immersed in autism. How many children do you have and what ages are the ones on the autism spectrum?
I have six kids. We are a blended family. We have 3 boys – ages 8, 13, and 14 on the autism spectrum.
You also have a younger brother who is Autistic. Can you speak a little about him and his strengths and challenges?
Charlie is 29. His biggest challenge is social interaction and the ability to be in the work force. I believe the world needs to adapt to him other than him adapting to the world. The work force must make accommodations for adults on the autism spectrum so they can have meaningful jobs.
Charlie is incredibly intelligent but lacks an “edit” button. It is difficult for him to edit what he thinks and talk to people in what others may deem as an “appropriate way.” Charlie wants to go back to school. He has a Bachelor’s Degree. Currently he is working at Goodwill through a work program.
What is he interested in pursuing in College?
Probably environmental science. He wants to go back to grad school.
In 2012, you left a successful career as a film producer to work with the autism nonprofit Autism Speaks. That must have been a difficult decision. Can you speak about that?
It wasn’t such a difficult decision. I wanted to become more involved in the autism community and the opportunity presented itself. I’m proud of the contributions I made while working at Autism Speaks. I met incredible people at Autism Speaks, including my wife Navah (Navah has two children on the Autism Spectrum).
Recently you moved from Autism Speaks to Autism Society of America (ASA), a nonprofit considered to be the “grandfather” of all autism organizations in the United States. What is your new position with National ASA?
Vice President of Development. The headquarters is in Maryland. I will be operating out of Southern California.
Why did you move from Autism Speaks to ASA?
It was a time for me to make a change. I had proven my self at Autism Speaks. I met and spoke with Scott Badesch, the CEO of ASA, about challenges the organization was facing. I thought I could help with those challenges. The opportunity at ASA allows me to be a bigger part of the leadership.
What are you most proud of your tenure at Autism Speaks?
I’m proud of being a connector. I’m proud of bringing my adventurous spirit to the organization and of making such a big change and not being afraid of being a middle-aged man and not losing that sense of adventure. I had people that believed in me there. That allowed me to take chances and think big.
I met so many incredible people at Autism Speaks- coworkers and the volunteers people who I will be friends with forever including my wife Navah, who was a volunteer for Autism Speaks when I met her.
How is ASA including autistic people in its governance?
Autistic people are on ASA’s board. They hire people on the autism spectrum regularly. It is incredibly important to be inclusive. Their commitment to hiring people on the spectrum stands on its own and it is something I am very proud to be a part of. (Editor’s note: They also have an advisory board of autistic people).
What other things is ASA doing to improve employment opportunities for autistic people?
We’re working on several training programs. We’re talking to legislators as well. Changing dynamics in the work place is important. We have to bring employers to an understanding that there is a value in that. People on the spectrum can provide value to employers and that they can excel at a job and enhance a company.
ASA is a national organization. Under the national umbrella there are many grassroots affiliates who manage their own budget within their own catchment area. When you do fundraising – is it for National or will money stay in the local community?
Both. We raise money for both our national organization and our local affiliates. The great thing about the Autism Society is their affiliate structure. Each affiliate, which there are 91, maintains their own autonomy and can decide what to emphasize and focus on in their own community.
Autism Speaks seems to dominate fundraising for autism with their Autism Walks and Light It Up Blue events. Are strategies being developed for signature ASA autism events?
Absolutely. We have an Autism film festival we are working on for April. I tend to like to focus on events that will be seen around the world and have an impact beyond the community the event is held in. This will be an annual event.
How would one submit a film for this film festival?
We have been quietly soliciting films. There will be a press release coming out in the near future which will be asking for submissions. We are looking for films that focus on autism. We are also looking for artists on the spectrum to be involved. – directors, producers, writers and actors. We want to highlight and celebrate artists on the autism spectrum in this film festival.
Where will the film festival take place and what is the date?
Orange County. April 22 and 23.
You are known for your musical events. Do you have any musical events planned?
Yes. There will be a possible announcement in the next few months. It’s still in the planning stages.
ASA has adopted new strategic goals and is focusing on Life Span Strategic Plans. Can you talk about that?
We are focusing on the entire lifespan of an individual. We want people to understand we are with them for their life.
Your entire family seem to be autism advocates, including your Dad Ed Asner who has been active in many civil rights issues over the decades. I recently watched a video “Autism has made me a better man, father.” Can you speak to that?
Autism has made us better fathers. I was a completely different person before I met my sons. My Dad was also a different person before he met his son. It has taught both of us patience and to believe in our children. My Dad in particular is not the most patient man. Knowing Charlie has made him a better person. It has also given us a bond. We’ve been proactive together. After Will was diagnosed my Dad got more involved in the autism community. We make a great team.
One thing I can say about my Dad is that he has never tried to hide that he has an autistic son. He’s always looked at celebrating the strengths his son was born with, helping those that need help and looked to celebrating the gifts of others as well.
What strengths or special interests does your son Will have?
This may sound funny but Will’s special interest is bathrooms.
Will can tell you anything you want to know about bathrooms. He’s an expert. He can tell you the type of toilet in a bathroom. It’s fascinating to him.
Besides that Will’s greatest gift is that he is a people person. What I’ve learned from Will is to see everyone as a person. He’s kind to everyone. Eddy and Wolf are both very musical and Wolf is a very high achiever in school I’m a better person for knowing them.
I read Will attends public school. Is he still attending public school?
Yes both Will and Eddy are in Public school. He is in 8th grade now and we are looking for alternatives for high school. Of course there are challenges but Will and Eddy have done well. They are loved at their schools.
What do you believe are the main challenges within the autism community?
Unity. So many people in the community believe different things and have different concerns. I’m not a confrontational person and sometimes it’s frustrating to see the division in the community. My hope is one day we can all come together and focus on the higher goal – to make our children’s lives better.
Can you speak to the value of music and art to the autism community?
I’m driven by the Arts and am a part of a project that my wife and father will be announcing soon in that area soon. I believe in creativity and the opportunity for the arts to build self-confidence and self-esteem. I believe in projects that stress the arts.
How can ASA help with providing opportunities for artists, writers, musicians on the spectrum share – and even sell – their work? Is ASA open to sponsorships, giveaways, invitations to perform at ASA events, etc.?
I will look for opportunities for artists as I have in the past. I see avenues for partnerships. I am sure in the future the Autism Society will become more involved in arts programs, whether it be through sponsorships or involving autistic people.
The Art of Autism has about 800 artists on the autism spectrum on an email list. I hope you funnel opportunities through our organization so they can participate.
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Stephen Shore talks about his Appointment to Autism Speaks Board of Directors
An interview with Steve Silberman: Author of NeuroTribes
An interview with John Pitney Jr.: Author of The Politics of Autism
PBS News Hour with John Donvan focuses on adults on the autism spectrum
Autistic People, Parents and Advocates speak about Autism Speaks