Design company utilizes unlikely talents

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Design company utilizes unlikely talents

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Five designers show off handmade products in the Autistar office, located in Daehyeon-dong, western Seoul, on Dec. 28. From left, Kim Seung-tae, Prof. Lee So-hyun, Cho Sang-hyeop, Jeong Yoon-seok and Cheon Jae-yoon. Son Gi-taek sits in the front. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]



The social enterprise Autistar, a design company based in Daehyeon-dong, western Seoul, is unique, but perhaps mostly because seven out of its 12 employees are on the autism spectrum.

It’s an unprecedented case in Korea, where misconceptions about the condition abound - the most common being that autistic people cannot keep or maintain a regular daily work schedule of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

But Lee So-hyun, 56, a professor in the Department of Special Education at Ewha Womans University, begs to differ.

As the founder of Autistar, she’s well aware of the talents people on the spectrum possess. She also employs students majoring in special education to help the designers communicate with other employees.

The designers, like all people with autism, fall on a spectrum in which symptoms can vary from mild to severe, though most who are high-functioning often have difficulties forming relationships or communicating with others.

The Autistar experiment has been ongoing for four years so far, and aims to help people with autism adjust to societal expectations by employing them full-time.

The company sells bags, notebooks and cellphone cases among other products, some of which are created by the seven designers with special needs.

Autistar also hopes to confront the misconception that people with autism cannot communicate normally and that the condition serves as a barrier to functioning in the outside world. Its stance is that by tapping into the talents those on the spectrum have and making use of them, they can help those people to best contribute to society.

So far, this philosophy has turned out to be correct.

Designer Jeong Yoon-seok, 20, is known as something of a dinosaur expert among the employees. He knows almost all the names of dinosaurs and can spell most of them in English, too. He was diagnosed with autism as a child and has had some difficulty communicating with other people. But Jeong enjoys handcrafting products with dinosaur designs, which are sold in both online and offline markets.

“Going to work is the most exciting part of the day,” he said.

Similarly, designer Yang Woo-jin, 21, draws the animals he likes. When he came to Autistar four years ago, he had a hard time connecting with others and suffered from severe social phobia, often shrinking away when new people came near him. But now, he’s grown accustomed to working with his peers and often shows off his creations to the other employees.

“At first, he ate alone, but now he looks forward to meals together,” said one of the employees.

The positive changes are evident to the designers’ parents as well.

The mother of designer Cheon Jae-yoon, 22, didn’t expect her son would be able to work as a full-time employee. Cheon has severe autism and was never able to sit down longer than 10 minutes. But after being hired at Autistar, Cheon learned how to use computer-editing programs with ease.

“Even though I’m his mother, I couldn’t recognize his talents,” Cheon’s mother said, adding that she cried when her son received his first paycheck.

The father of designer Woo Won-kyung, 27, is proud of what his son has achieved, though he admitted that there were often times when he was ashamed of his son’s condition.

“Just speaking one word with my son wasn’t easy,” he said. “Now, I make his lunch box every day.”

Lee, the professor, expects many companies will eventually follow Autistar’s model and give young people on the autism spectrum a chance to shine.

“Autism is a disability in communication, but in certain fields, the patients show extraordinary talent,” she said. “I hope other autistic people can one day be recognized for their work.”

BY HONG SANG-JI [kim.hyangmin@joongang.co.kr]

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