Seeds of Brotherly Love Sprout Thriving Social Enterprise for People With Autism
6 June 2017 at 1:55 pm
From what started as a sentiment of brotherly love and a conviction that people with autism and depression had a lot to offer in the workplace, Gardening A Difference has turned into a thriving gardening enterprise that actively seeks to employ people on the fringes.
What a difference a couple of years and a pot of seeds can make.
A few years ago, George Arkinstall was working the graveyard shift at a service station and was “in the middle of a dark period” where he struggled to get motivated.
“I found it hard to even to get the smallest things done. Your level of care just isn’t there and as a result people think you are a bad worker,” Arkinstall says.
His brother Harry, wasn’t doing too well either. Harry has autism, and although high functioning, he struggled to hold down a job for more than a couple of months.
Arkinstall explains that both he and Harry felt largely unsupported and misunderstood in the workplace.
“Harry really struggled in the workforce, [the places he worked] didn’t have the education or necessary supports for someone who has high-function autism,” he says.
“In a way he was taken advantage of, he was underpaid, I think it was even below minimum wage and there were no systems in place to support him.
“He was treated like any other employee they had, which in his circumstance, isn’t enough to keep him at the job. He is either going to get sick of it because he is frustrated or he is going to get fired because he is not doing it right, there needs to be extra effort to make sure he is doing the job properly.
“I had a look around a there were very few workplaces that had the supports for someone on the autism spectrum.”
Filled with a conviction that there must be another way, Arkinstall started Gardening with a Difference, a small gardening enterprise dedicated to raising awareness and employing people who experience depression or live with autism.
Now 22, Arkinstall is the sole owner of the enterprise that celebrated its one year anniversary on Saturday.
Over the first year, Gardening A Difference, grew from the two brothers to employing an additional three people either with autism or depression.
Arkinstall says Gardening A Difference is a supportive workplace for people with autism or depression.
“We have systems in place. We send teams of gardeners, one that is high functioning autistic or has depression and they are linked with a professional gardener who has undertaken professional training so they understand autism and depression. So they can not only be a work colleague they can also be a support person who can understand how to direct these people properly and how to deal with meltdowns or lack of motivation, ” he says.
Arkinstall says each task, and the duration of the work, is tailored towards the strengths of the individual.
For people with high-functioning autism, Arkinstall says, you need to be mindful of light or loud noise and a set of repetitive tasks can be beneficial.
“Mowing lawns, cutting hedges things that they can do over and over again, that they can get down to a fine art and do really well. That is something they enjoy,” he says.
Arkinstall says gardening can be very beneficial to people with depression as well.
“Gardening has very tangible outcomes, you can see the effort in your work and think I have succeeded in this area,” he says.
“They can build up self-belief and see the outcomes for the things they are doing.”
The social enterprise donated 20 per cent of its proceeds to beyondblue and Autism Queensland but in year two, Arkinstall says he plans to change tack.
“Our goals have really changed. As we have grown through this year, we have realised the real potential we have is for employing people on the autism spectrum and employing people experiencing depression,” he says.
“We realised that the money we were donating was better served towards creating a better system and better education for our employees to better support them and expand our business.”
Gardening A Difference has partnered with Quest for Learning to expand the business to employ four people with depression and four people with autism.
On a personal level, Arkinstall says his greatest achievement thus far, aside from securing meaningful work for himself and Harry, is raising awareness and advocating for the rights of people living with autism.
In September, he and one of his employees will be speaking at the Asian Pacific Autism Conference in Sydney.
And Harry has been employed now for a year and his self-esteem is improving.
“My dad noticed it and said to me: ‘You can tell that Harry’s self worth has improved. His demeanour around home is better, you can hear him saying, “I’ve got to do this, I am achieving this.” ’ ”