Star Ford is an autistic social entrepreneur who started Ócate Cliffs, an eco-retreat center located on 139 acres in the mountains of beautiful New Mexico. This “autistic workspace” will create employment for about 20 autistic adults. Read our interview with Star below.
This is the thing my whole life has been leading up to. Even since before I knew anything about autism, I was focused on learning to lead religious retreats and camps, and I spent a lot of time learning about details like plumbing fixtures and solar energy, and now all those separate threads are coming together. The autism label gives me a way to find my people and direct all that energy to something concrete.
Since we will only offer a handful of jobs, this project is not by itself the big answer to the employment problems. But it challenges the common notions that we’re only capable of low-level jobs. I want to document the kind of growth that can happen for people in a safe autistic space and change the way the conversation about autistic employment happens.
Any minority group can benefit from a safe space, which is a place controlled by that group. When you go there as a member of a minority, you might feel relieved, welcomed, or empowered by letting go of that constant stress of being the “other” in the wider world. With autism, it is no different. A low-stress cognitively-accessible safe space for us that’s conducive to personal and career growth is what I call an “autistic workspace.”
The biggest challenge is the lack of networking and lack of a charismatic spokesperson. Since the board is majority autistic, as a group we mostly have the substantial disability of not being able to make a public splash, and I think we can be seen as a fringe that threatens mainstream autism interests. For example, we haven’t been able to open doors with the local autism society chapter, who could be an important ally. On the other hand, our biggest victory so far is the love! When people who need this hear about it, their enthusiasm is contagious and I can feel the love spreading and energizing through their words. The few people who have visited the site have felt inspired in a deep way. So I’m trying to stay focused on that – deeper experiences for a few people – and not worrying too much about the limitations in conventional publicity.
What I want to offer is inspiration. Maybe your life is going nowhere and you come to the mountain and experience something new in this accessible space, and that lights a fire that makes you start a business or something back home. I would not advise replicating this model – it is not necessary to have other retreat centers like this one. Instead, we need to build people from within, so those people have the resources and confidence to do the things that come from their hearts.
A really simple thing is to watch the video on our web site – ocatecliffs.org – and can get a T-shirt or shopping bag, then use that as a conversation starter and let people know about us. (These items are free with a donation! [video_lightbox_youtube video_id=”pi9ifeJTrXI” width=”640″ height=”480″ anchor=”Click here to view the video”] or watch it below.) We hope to have a substantial crowdfunding campaign in the next year or so.