Autistic individuals wanting a job in media production have more barriers to their employment than their peers. Explaining the difficulties that those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face every day in the workplace, the Harvard Business Review shares “Did you know that an autistic professional is up to 140% more productive than an average employee when properly matched to a job that fits their skills? Yet, discrimination against neurodivergent people continues.”
There’s hope against such discrimination in media work. Per Forbes, attitudes toward hiring such individuals have slowly changed over the last few years due to advocacy by autism organizations. Offering employment and education in media production on the local front, Nashville’s Westwood Avenue (WA) (formerly On The Avenue) is part job, part training studio, and part ASD community living resource.
Intended to help address ASD issues holistically, WA is part of a more complex structure. In 2023, it was recently reformed as a for-profit entity, supplemented by the sister nonprofit On the Avenue Foundation of Tennessee, which received its 501(c)(3) status that same year.
Both entities come to Nashville from Woodard Brothers Distributing and are led by Managing Partner Tom Woodard. A veteran of the music and advertising industries, Tom Woodard is WA’s managing partner. Tom is recognized by many as the voice of the “Budweiser Frog” commercials and is an American Advertising Federation (AAF) Silver Medal Award Program winner.
Learning at One’s Own Pace
WA’s Director of Operations Dieter Spears is a creative jack-of-all-trades. He adds the titles of autism advocate and educator to a list of credentials that includes filmmaker, photographer, graphic designer, musician, and entrepreneur.
Dieter believes that production work—just like most forms of work across the board—can and should accommodate those with autism. “There’s a disconnect between expectations of work and productivity and individuals with special needs,” he tells FilmNashville Foundation. “Not everyone works under these expectations. And if you change this model, you can bring out the talents of certain individuals.”
According to Dieter, the fight to make employment and education accessible for ASD individuals is a fight that helps everyone. As a neurotypical person, he values the process of unique learning approaches to maximize creativity. Attending Lipscomb University to study art and graphic design, Dieter looked forward to moving beyond the college environment into the real world.
“I’m a hands-on learning kind of guy,” he says. “I like to just figure things out myself over having someone else tell me what to do. I go to people to learn from them after I’ve done enough experimenting on my own. Only after having that emotional investment into a subject do I care enough to learn about the basic theory.”
In 1988 Dieter pursued his passion for playing music. He found success through both playing gigs and working as an at-home audio engineer who worked with other musicians.
Dieter says, “I was part of a band called ‘Picture This!’ that made quite a bit of noise in the Mid-South. We played ‘50s and ‘60s covers, and gigged at a lot of fun clubs like the EXIT/IN, college campuses, and some bigger spots all over the area.”
In 1990, he formed Inhaus Creative. Through this business, he focused on graphic design work for almost fifteen years, creating logos and working with international brands. Distilling business and organizational concepts down to their core visual elements was rewarding, and something few could do.
“One of my most well-known clients was Tennessee whiskey brand George Dickel. I had a six-year run with them, doing the work for their bottles, their promotional materials, and everything else,” Dieter says.
The graphic design work was more than creating digital art. It was a multi-step process that required purchasing lots of stock photo images from sites like photography vendor Getty Images. “Working on graphic design projects, I was spending a lot of money on other people’s work.” So he realized that moving into photography was a viable next step.
With a reputation for doing great graphic design work, in 2003 Dieter knew that digital photography was the future, so he bought his own camera and gear. Later, he joined iStock Photo as a contributing photographer. He combined his graphic design skills, photography and the use of editing software to create never-before-seen images.
“The editing combined with the photography allowed me to bring creative concepts into the work. From this, I was making cooler stuff that no one else was selling. That’s what elevated my status as a preferred vendor to these sites,” Dieter says.
With this reputation as a preferred vendor, he networked with other professional photographers. These photographers were curious about his work and exchanged his editing insight for their wisdom of making great photos in-camera.
“I zeroed in on specific stuff that I knew for certain that graphic designers would want to buy,” he says.
Making artful stock images—including blades of grass and different glasses of beer in front of a white background—helped him become a bestselling stock photographer. Such pics were purchased for use in major news stories, billboards, and airport signage all over the world. They also kicked off several global trends, with other photographers trying to copy what they were seeing.
“With everything I do, I’m always looking for the thing that hasn’t been done. Or, at least the thing that hasn’t been done well,” Dieter says.
Keeping his eyes on new horizons is what brought him to video production.
In 2009, he took an offer to join the production team of the indie feature horror film “LWA: All Saints Eve,” serving as an executive producer. Dieter then wrote and directed a series of short films. One of his favorite things about doing shorts is building relationships with other talented personnel without the specter of some deadline looming over everything. Dieter says, “It’s amazing some of the people I’ve been able to work with on these projects. Ryan Featherstun is incredibly talented and will be doing big things soon. I’ve also been working with Josh Shreve, who should be on everyone’s list as someone to watch in the next few years!”
Everything he had learned along the way would one day enable him to pass knowledge, techniques, and possibilities on to autistic individuals whose lives would be transformed by the experience.
Getting On The Avenue
By 2017, Dieter had put together several ideas for projects and was actively trying to secure funding to make a movie. It was also around this time that Dieter started working with Tom Woodard and his creative agency Westwood Avenue / WA.
These projects for WA were always a positive experience. They were bigger jobs, though, and came to Dieter with a particular caveat.
“Tom had developed a relationship with numerous young men who were on the spectrum,” he says. “They were great guys, and Tom began to care for them like they were family. But they didn’t always get the job done the way Tom needed.”
Dieter didn’t know much about autism until after meeting Tom’s employees. Interacting with them, he observed their skill gaps and difficulties.
“There was room for improvement with these guys. But I also saw potential and noticed that they were talented in certain areas. They were responsive to feedback, had incredible integrity, and were more fun to be around than most people.”
Dieter found himself hanging out with these young men as friends, instead of simply entertaining work buddies. They were pleasantly surprised to learn that he thought of them as a friend, as Dieter made a point to regularly visit their studio. Hanging out with them, Dieter was able to share what he had learned as a photographer, graphic designer, and filmmaker, and reach these young men in a way that no one else could.
Tom noticed the positive impact Dieter had on his employees. And in early 2020, Tom met with Dieter to discuss how the two could further help Tennessee’s ASD community. Tom suggested starting an organization specifically to employ and train those with autism.
Dieter agreed to join Tom in his mission to create On The Avenue. Around this time, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, disrupting much of his other work assignments. During the shutdowns in Nashville, Dieter relocated his studio to the WA Berry Hill facility, which was just a few blocks down the road from his original location.
The Upside of ASD
Dieter states that those enrolled in WA—known as citizens—have unlimited creative potential. To reach that potential, one must first chart an educational course that fits that person. This is done via WA’s individual assignment based learning (IABL) plans, which are drafted by WA’s employees who’ve gotten to know each citizen. Once their talents and interests are properly gauged, WA can find out what projects would be best suited for that citizen.
“That’s how each of our individually-assigned video or content projects start,” Dieter says.
Once drafted, each IABL becomes a content project. So far, IABLs have produced content related to sports commentary, informative vocational video features, music, books, and even educational content made for other ASD adults who live on their own. Citizens may work alone or together depending on the IABL and may offer constructive feedback for one another’s work.
WA also has a collective group project that includes every citizen. This is a weekly podcast entitled “No Edits, No Filter.” Joining the WA members is a steady lineup of guests that includes songwriters, entrepreneurs, athletes, politicians, and other visitors from the community.
Getting in the Game
Riley Dulaney is a proud citizen of WA. “My experience with finding Westwood Avenue was sort of happenstance. I actually found it through Tom,” he says.
Riley’s mother has been friends with Tom Woodard’s family for decades. One day after chatting with her about Riley’s plans for the future, Tom suggested that Riley and his mother visit WA.
Riley says, “Tom told my mom ‘I think I have a creative studio that Riley would love!”
Tom’s hunch was right. After visiting WA, Riley fell in love with the organization. Actually getting to see other people on the spectrum make content sparked something in him.
Riley is now the host of “Rowdy Riley’s Sports Review,” a YouTube show that puts him in front of NFL players to hear their stories. Of this experience, he says “The skills I’ve learned from Westwood for my podcast include having an on-camera presence and doing research before an interview. Some of the times, I don’t know anything about my interviewees. To me, the research is the most interesting part… It’s a process, trying to think of questions for the interview.”
Hosting a program has enabled Riley to learn a lot. He’s presently working on a project to determine why the parents of WA citizens chose Westwood Avenue, and what their hopes are for their children.
Riley says “Pun intended, us citizens have taken a lot of different avenues to get to Westwood Avenue. Whether that be through an educational program or from some of us knowing Tom outside of the organization. This is such a cool place! Being autistic myself, there are some days in which I want to be insular and self-contained. Even on those days, I need help from neurotypicals… Or I need to be around people who are like-minded.”
A Safe, Collaborative Space
Citizen Brad Bramlett came to WA after graduating from Lipscomb University’s IDEAL Program, a three-year certificate program that empowers disabled students.
“Coming out of the IDEAL Program, I became acquainted with Westwood Avenue,” he says. “It seemed like a good fit for me at the time, how it was brought up to me. It’s been wonderful since then.”
WA appealed to Brad’s lifelong interest in mass communications, as he wanted to fully immerse himself in the field after leaving Lipscomb. “Being here, I’m able to learn a lot on my own simply by looking things up. I learned for myself how to become a better video editor. But I learn a lot from Dieter, too, who shows me how to do certain things.”
The power of something like WA is that it compels an individual to pick up new activities they might not learn by themselves. For Brad, the WA group discussions about storytelling—which are held in a space he considers “smooth and flexible”—pushed him into his new passion for creative writing.
“I did something inspired by the video game ‘Super Smash Bros,” he says. “The character [for the story] is a space mercenary. I was happy with how I created the concept, and it motivated me to write a story. I got to share this idea with the group, and they liked it. I’ve challenged myself to write the story in the form of a screenplay. It was a lot of work, but I feel that I made a lot of it come together.”
Whatever he’s working on, Brad sees daily progress in himself.
“I feel like I’ve been growing more as I’ve become more creative. My hope is that WA teaches me to be much more productive. It’s also great for us who are growing into our own lives as adults,” he says.
Giving Others a Voice
Rita Ragni is both a citizen of WA and a member of its staff. “I help out with the other citizens here. I might help with some of their drawings, or I might help by giving them advice and brainstorming with them.”
Rita describes her art as “a hodgepodge of everything I like,” and a style that’s wholesome and energizing.
“I love comic books! There’s a lot of comic book influence in what I do,” she says. “I love video games… I use a lot of funky colors, so there are a lot of those instead of just neutral stuff. ”
Going back to when she was a little girl, Rita relied on art to express her feelings.
“I had a hard upbringing, so a lot of my emotions were just bottled in,” she says.
“Some citizens will come and, and be like ‘I’m mad today!’ Others may be just bouncing off the walls with excitement.”
When she was young, Rita suffered from depression and anxiety. Her autism diagnosis, however, did not occur until she was in her early 20s.
“I found out really, really late. And I turned towards the internet to learn about other peoples’ experience with autism,” she says. “Some of the people I befriended on the internet were also expressing themselves through artwork and writing.”
Explaining what autism is like is difficult. Art allows Rita to do that.
Sometimes, autism can help Rita visualize an art project. But just as well, it can work against her, stopping her from processing what a concept might look like.
“There are times when my brain just can’t wrap around something,” she says.
Not being a social butterfly, it used to take Rita months to get comfortable with her peers. Rita didn’t have that problem with WA.
“Being here has helped me make friends. It’s also shown me how my art can be used for multiple things, like making logos. That’s a whole science and something that doesn’t come naturally.”
Rita’s artwork has been a pillar in the rebranding of WA, and it’s prominently featured in the promotions and merchandise of the organization.
Citizens Coming Together
At the time of this writing, WA had 11 enrolled citizens. They’re presently planning on growing the group to 15 per workday, which the organization says would make for a full roster.
Dieter and crew have big plans for WA, which is actively looking for other creative personnel who want to do meaningful work in the realm of disability advocacy.
“We’re in the process of making some documentary content. I’ve interviewed a lot of parents. My main takeaway from these interviews is, ‘My kid sits at home all day long, and my kid needs friends.’ There are a lot of isolated people on the spectrum, but getting these people together and giving them something to do solves this. This is actually my primary goal, as it’s the most important,” Dieter says.
WA’s plans are not limited to content, or even autism for that matter.
With autism advocacy as its core, WA wants to band together with other causes to create more visibility and resources. This is necessary to create a community safety net.
“Through the IDEAL Program, we have a good relationship with Lipscomb. Some of those students come over to do an internship with us. They also have intern students interested in advocacy work or teaching join our mission,” Dieter says.
For further information about Westwood Avenue, visit its website and social media.