Start-up learns from autistic staff

MILWAUKEE — Renee Graber graduated from Marquette University nearly two years ago with a major in broadcast and electronic communication and a minor in film studies. After trying to find her footing in Los Angeles, she returned to Milwaukee where she found herself working with Matt Sabady, a 23-year-old with high-functioning autism, at a local Milwaukee start-up company — Einstein Productions — that is breaking the stigma regarding young adults with autism.

Einstein Productions, a nonprofit that opened its doors in September in The Shops of Grand Avenue, aims at assisting two sets of individuals in achieving their future careers in communication: recent graduates of Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication and high-functioning young adults with autism spectrum disorders.

Marquette alumni who have clients but lack formal office space for meetings and adequate software or equipment are able to use Einstein’s fully equipped space for free. In exchange for the amenities, the alums mentor and work hand-in-hand with autistic young adults who do not necessarily fit the mold of classroom-based learning at the college level.

The business is financed by Carole Burns, one of three founders and the current president of Einstein Productions. The initial funds came from donations given by family and friends of Burns, and the computer equipment was donated by Marquette University. In September Burns opened the doors after years of attempting to find the right program to bring young adults with autism out of their shells and into a professional atmosphere.

Burns, whose 21-year-old son, Andy, has the autism spectrum disorder Asperger syndrome, had been searching for a way to help young people like him use their skills to secure job opportunities and live an independent life.

“The intention is to get everyone trained, off of Social Security disability and to be working for a company or have active entrepreneurial opportunities,” Burns said.

Burns, her son and Sabady founded Einstein Productions without any clients and now have a growing clientele who have specific requests. The nonprofit is planning to shoot multiple videos for Sodexo, Marquette’s food service, as well as four videos for Independence First, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities live independently. In addition to video, Einstein has upcoming projects entailing web design, photography and e-book production.

Graber, head videographer and board member of Einstein Productions, is passionate about working with digital media and has the personal drive to give back to the autism community.

“I have a younger sister with autism and, not that I felt I had a duty to do this, but I felt it was a great way to combine my passions,” Graber said.

The nonprofit is in the preproduction phase of its work, attempting to train all staff members in multimedia equipment and software. Graber, though a graduate and trained in nearly all the software the company uses, is still learning from her co-worker Sabady.

“Matt is awesome,” Graber said. “He is so tech-savvy and he’s been more of a teacher than I could ever be. He’s an inspiration.”

Sabady said he learns by just trying. “I just go at it, just do it and figure it out by myself.”

He also demonstrates his ability to quickly grasp concepts by building his own central processing units — a computer’s internal hardware that operates software programs — out of spare parts that Burns finds. His most recent achievement is a functioning CPU that fits in an old ammo box from an Army surplus store. Now he’s taking requests from his co-workers.

According to Burns, her proudest moments come from working with Sabady.

“Before this, Matt was an individual facing depression and a feeling like he didn’t belong,” Burns said. “When I opened the business it was in poor shape, and he helped refurbish it and stuck with it every step of the way. Now he is our main photographer and he takes great pride in it.”

Einstein Productions prides itself on being a place where everyone is a success story. “Everyone just wants to feel they have a place in this world,” Burns said. “Autistic individuals have the same hopes and dreams, it’s just getting people to understand. This company helps them achieve that.”