Any parent raising a child with autism knows what it’s like to worry about their child’s future. Harry Engnell Sr. was no different. When his son, Harry Jr. graduated from high school in 2003, there were few opportunities for adults with autism in the workplace. Then they bought a button machine.
“We had a button-making machine in the basement, and Harry used to love to go downstairs just to make buttons,” says Harry Sr.
“He’d put all the parts in the machine and then after a few spins of the turntable and a few pulls on the handle out would pop a beautiful button. . . and he’d get a great big smile on his face.”
In what he describes as an “Oprah Winfrey light-bulb moment,” Harry Sr. realized that he could turn his son’s love of making buttons into a business that would not only offer employment for his son, but could also be expanded to offer opportunities for other adults with autism in their local community. Thus, Harry’s Buttons was born.
The company grew into a thriving business, creating buttons for schools, non-profits, churches, fairs, and many other organizations and individuals. In 2008, the company partnered with the Easter Seals Autism Therapeutic School and Adult Vocational Program in Tinley Park, Illinois. The Engnell family donated the business to Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago in 2010, and the company currently has two locations, Tinley Park and Chicago. They employ over 40 individuals with autism creating buttons, magnets, and key chains of various sizes and designs.
Kelly Ann Ohde, instructor at the Easter Seals adult vocational program, says that it is the repetitive and consistent nature of the job appeals to people with autism.
“I found the process of making the buttons. It was a very routine process and that’s one of the strengths of people with autism. They count on routine and they count on consistency. . . if we had to make 1,000 buttons we might get bored, but for a person with autism they actually thrive on it.”
Earlier this year, the Easter Seals program also partnered with The Wine Steward L.L.C, a privately owned company in Orland Park, Illinois. In February 2013, the employees at the Easter Seals Adult Vocational Program were hired to create wine charms that were included in the Oscar swag bags given out at the Academy Awards. Two lucky employees, Dylan and Ronnie, were chosen to attend the Oscars.
Due to the ingenuity of one father, many adults with autism have the opportunity to do work they truly enjoy, and local businesses are seeing the value in hiring them to create their products. Harry’s Buttons and the Easter Seals Adult Vocational Program in Tinley Park, Illinois, offers an example of successful collaboration between local businesses and a program that helps adults with autism find employment.