Autism Acceptance Tree inspires awareness and innovation

April 28, 2021 Kristine Carl
A Schwab employee with family ties to Autism Spectrum Disorder leveraged her leadership role to champion autism awareness at Schwab's Chicago office.

It’s human nature to want to connect with others who share similar experiences or circumstances. That’s why, when Barbara, a senior manager on Schwab’s Compliance team, was asked if she’d be willing to start a chapter of the Charles Schwab Abilities Network (CSAN) in Chicago, she jumped at the chance. She leveraged her leadership role to launch the Autism Acceptance Tree, which not only advances diversity and inclusion at Schwab but is a symbol of the company’s culture of innovation, collaboration, and volunteerism.


The same month I joined Schwab, our son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The journey prior to the diagnosis and many months after were painful and full of uncertainty. At the time I had heard about CSAN but there wasn't a chapter in our Chicago office.

- Charles Schwab Abilities Network Chicago leader Barbara (pictured above with her son Alex)

CSAN is one of Schwab’s 11 employee resource groups formed by employees who share a common interest, or who have shared characteristics or life experiences. Its mission is to foster a thriving work environment and community for those who have a disability or who care for a loved one with a disability.

“Our efforts cater not just to our members but to everyone in the form of education and allyship,” Barbara says. “It really does take every person to build a truly inclusive environment.”

The spirit of inclusivity inspired Barbara to launch the 2019 Autism Acceptance Tree—a campaign that asked Chicago-based employees to write the names of autistic people they knew on puzzle pieces to create an ever-growing mural of names forming a tree. Some wrote the names of family and friends; others wrote their own names. As they did so, the Autism Acceptance Tree came to life as a symbol of growth and connectedness.

“It’s not just about knowing that 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with ASD,” says Barbara. “The campaign asked people to self-reflect: ‘Do I know someone with ASD?’ And if they didn’t, ‘Am I an ally to those that do?’”

Chicago employees with the Autism Acceptance Tree

The Autism Acceptance Tree was so well received that Barbara was asked to replicate it on a larger scale to reach more employees. As a result, the grassroots Chicago campaign is going virtual this summer and promises to reach all 32,000 Schwabbies, thanks to a team of volunteers focused on building an app that digitizes the original experience. Collaborators include CSAN members, employees from Schwab’s R&D team, and three members of the firm’s New Employee Research Development (NERD) program, which focuses on giving recent college grads the skills necessary to become tomorrow’s creators and innovators.

Pooja, a NERD-graduate who became a Schwab software developer and member of the app volunteer team, says, “Although I don’t personally know anyone with autism, I loved the purpose of this project. I wanted to help any way I could in fulfilling CSAN’s mission to foster a positive and inclusive work environment.”

Fellow NERD grad and full-time Schwabbie Blake agrees, adding “I like that this project is using technologies that I’m not too familiar with, so I get to learn something new while also making a positive impact at Schwab.”

Barbara says she originally nearly dismissed her idea for an app to expand the program because she knew it would take an incredible amount of technical resources, time, and emotional commitment to build it. But she didn’t need to worry, because as Dan, a current member of the NERD program and app volunteer says, “The atmosphere here is one of always helping each other. When a person needs help, they will always receive it, even from someone they have never talked to before.”

Tune back in this summer to check out the Autism Acceptance app once it goes live and hear directly from the tech team about its creation.