My beautiful wife, Beth, and I are the parents of two teenage children. While no two children are the same, I can tell you from my own experience that there is one tie that binds us all: hope. Hope that our child will, through his or her own drive and our support, be their very best self.
That’s where Susan Butler and the Early Autism Project (EAP) come in. EAP offers intensive, research-based behavioral treatment for children and young adults between the ages of 20 months and 21 years with autism spectrum and related disorders. EAP applies the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which fosters basic skills such as looking, listening and imitating, and complex skills such as reading, conversing and understanding another person’s perspective to reduce the behaviors that make it difficult for students to learn.
EAP is a personal passion for Susan, whose son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at a young age. Her drive has delivered solutions to thousands of families in South Carolina who are experiencing the same feelings of frustration — and hope — that she herself felt almost two decades ago.
The EYVoice team spoke with Susan ahead of her journey to Palm Springs in November 2013 for the EY Strategic Growth Forum® to learn more about how her personal mission has changed the lives of many.
Q: What is the best advice you ever received?
“Be passionate about what you do.”
Q: What is the biggest mistake in business you’ve ever made?
We couldn’t afford to make any big mistakes. We had to manage our company very prudently and carefully because we had very limited personal capital at start up.
In later years, we were growing so fast and had to finance our own growth. Our financial foot was to the fire and we couldn’t afford to make a misstep that might cause our children and families not to get services or put our employees out of work. Our clients and employees mean everything to us and we couldn’t let them down.
Q: In terms of hiring good talent, what job skills are you looking for right now?
There are two very important intangible characteristics we look for most in a candidate: love and dedication to children and families. We must have employees who love children, believe that all children can learn and who are dedicated to helping every child in our care live up to their potential.
We can teach the “book knowledge” in the treatment protocol that is required for an ABA therapist, but it is the innate qualities that come from the therapist’s heart that can make all the difference in the outcome and life of a child.
Q: What made you take the leap to be an entrepreneur?
My two-year-old son Collin was diagnosed with autism in 1994. There were no treatment options, and not much was known about autism. His diagnosis was delivered to me as if it were a terminal, life sentence of no hope. It was devastating, and I desperately wanted to help him live up to the enormous potential that I knew he had.
Through my research, I found out that a 1987 study proved that ABA was an effective treatment for children with autism and that with intensive early treatment, children with autism could learn to function like their typically developing peers. But I only found two research-based ABA providers in the US, one in California and one in Wisconsin, and they weren’t taking on new cases.
After three months and 63 phone calls to the Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP), I had the top doctor flying down to Sumter, SC, to start a treatment program for Collin. Hope begins! Collin started making immediate progress, and I could see him flourishing. I started connecting with other families dealing with autism, telling them about Collin’s treatment program and helping them understand how it could help their child too.
That feeling of helping other families and giving them hope was intoxicating to me. It fueled my leap to be an entrepreneur, and it fuels me every day. Now, Collin is an independent, successful, 21-year-old young man in college on academic scholarship and the wonderful by-product of the hard work and dedication from his amazing team of talented and loving therapists, led by Ann Eldridge — Collin’s angel and my incredible partner.
I have the best job in the world: I get to bring hope to families dealing with autism.
Q: What are your top concerns as an entrepreneur for 2014?
The effects of the Affordable Care Act. We want an effective, research-based treatment model and protocol to be offered, but the autism treatment protocol is not a national standardized benefit and varies from state to state. We hope that the benefit doesn’t get reduced down once we go to a national health care system.