Autism support network at Schwab jumps from analog to digital

April 18, 2022 Sean Carey
See how what began as a simple heartfelt gesture resulted in innovation, mentorship, and career development at the professional level.

One compelling benefit of diversity and inclusion projects in the workplace is that they often have powerful ripple effects that cannot be predicted.

The Autism Acceptance Tree

In 2019, Barbara Kuehn, a senior manager at Schwab, stepped into a leadership role for the Charles Schwab Abilities Network group. This group was especially important to Barbara because her son had recently been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

In her role, Barbara worked with other Chicago employees to create the Autism Acceptance Tree—a mural where anyone could contribute by writing down the name of someone they knew on the spectrum.

Building a community

The project was a success because it was more than a visual, it was creating a sense of community. The tree got fuller and fuller over time, and employees in Chicago had their thoughts drawn to allyship, acceptance, and ongoing education around autism. 

The question then arose, “Can we scale this to reach employees outside of Chicago?” 

And just as the ideation began about how they could put tree murals in every Schwab location, the 2020 pandemic reared its head and put an analog solution temporarily out of reach. 

Challenge often turns into opportunity, and that’s exactly what happened in this case. Barbara began to look for help from a world she was less familiar with—Schwab’s technology talent.  

And that’s where the ripples began.

Teamwork makes the (digital) dream work

Volunteers from the Schwab Research & Development team and the New Employee Research Development (NERD) program joined the cause to create an online Autism Acceptance Tree app, compatible with the firm’s network and accessible to all employees.  

The app allows employees to submit the name of someone they know impacted by autism and then animates the name on a leaf that grows onto a tree branch. The leaves are cycled in and out so that no matter how many submissions the app receives, everyone’s contributions will get visibility. 

The app also links out to learning resources and provides opportunities to engage with autism-related organizations that also benefit from the company’s donation matching offering.

Some of the team members experienced the ripple effect of allyship:

Christy Wong in Software Development and Engineering jumped on board because, “This project was a wonderful opportunity to foster a sense of community and inclusion within Schwab.”

Others found fulfilment in developing new talent:

Eric Brubaker from Schwab Labs realized that, “Working with new employees is energizing. They bring a new perspective and energy to every engagement. It actually helps me recharge my batteries working with new ideas and ways of thinking.”

Yet others found an opportunity for learning and career growth:

Pooja Mikkilineni in Software Development and Engineering took away new technical skills. “I learned about CSS animations, keyframes, properties relevant to layering elements, and how to time animations. I definitely walked away with more knowledge on SVGs than at the start of the project.”

And some walked away with an expanded awareness of how innovation is part of Schwab culture:

Dan Benett in Software Development and Engineering noted, “This wasn’t a ‘this is how we always do it’ approach. In this project everybody contributed ideas, and the project changed based on those ideas.” 

In the leap from analog to digital, the Autism Acceptance Tree is teaching us that innovation takes many forms, and that inclusion touches more parts of our professional and personal lives than we know.