Autism Awareness Month

Houston organization is providing access to special education resources 'anywhere there is Wi-Fi'

Houston-based Incuentro provides online education with individuals with Autism, ADD, Asperger's, social anxiety, or learning differences — as well as parents or employers. Getty Images

A Houston-based online platform is hoping to provide easy access to special education resources to support individuals with special needs, as well as their employers, teachers, and caregivers — or anyone with internet access.

The online program, Incuentro, launched April 1, coinciding with the start of Autism Awareness Month. The first 15 classes are slated to go live in June. These virtual classes are intended to be a resource for people from first grade all the way through adulthood who are coping with Autism, ADD, Asperger's, social anxiety, or learning differences.

"Over 30 students participated in the pilot program over the past 9 months," says Wendy Dawson, founder of Incuentro. "I've seen students relate to the lessons, make connections with the topics, engage in peer conversation, and find support and learning in a safe environment."

Students learn and practice skills applicable to school, employment, and social situations in the virtual company of a qualified teacher and peers from the comfort of their own home. The teaching style is as interactive as possible and requires participants to engage in discussion.

Life education
Dawson says that students will get the most out of this experience if they are verbal, able to sustain attention, and participate in a video conference forum. Hour-long classes focus on friendship, behavior, social interactions in the primary and elementary years, while tweens focus on making peer connections.

"We want to provide help upfront to reduce the anxiety and depression that we commonly see later in life," Dawson says.

Teen classes set up students with skills for future employment and transitions post-high school. Adult learners benefit from job skills and workplace behavior norms.

Students who are employed or looking for employment learn about topics like conversing with coworkers and supervisors, appropriate social interactions, and understanding the rules of the workplace. Equally important, teachers discuss with participants ways that they can be their own advocate as they maneuver through society.

A focus on inclusion
Incuentro offers employer training as well, to help foster a climate of inclusion in the workplace, to discourage a lowering of expectations when accommodating employees with Autistic traits. Classes give supervisors understanding and practicalities that will foster a positive environment for employees who are also enrolled in the course.

"Employers are coached on topics such as: understanding a literal mind, being factual, making simple accommodations like visual schedules, delivering information in a low-stress manner, and understanding learning styles," Dawson says.

Incuentro helps to bridge the gap between the service and people in need through technology.

"There is a huge disconnect between the people who need services, and the actual resources. Many times they don't know where to go, or are too far away to access them."

All you need is internet access
Accessing the classes remotely removes the barrier of accessibility for people in rural areas, as well as people who would rather not drive to a class after a long day at work or school. Oftentimes, students will feel more comfortable participating in a one-hour, online discussion with 5-7 peers, rather than enduring the social pressures of a classroom setting.

"Our desire is to bring access to special education expertise to anywhere there is Wi-Fi," says Dawson.

Incuentro curriculum is created by Education Visionary Specialist Brandi Timmons, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and a Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA). Classes are taught by expert teachers who specialize in special needs education.

Family business
Dawson's passion behind Incuentro was inspired by her step-son, Cameron Dawson, who was diagnosed with Autism at the age of two.

"There were no services to fit his needs available in the market," Dawson says, "so we've spent 10 years advocating and learning, and figuring out how to best bring services to people who need them."

Cameron participated in the Incuentro pilot program while attending Texas Tech, and in May he will be graduating with his degree in Communication Studies. Upon returning home to Houston, he will be seeking a job in one of many local churches, where Dawson says he has experienced love and support throughout his life.

As a mother of a child with Autism and advocate for people with special needs, Dawson has seen the challenges faced by parents. Parents not only must navigate the ups and downs of school life and home life with their child each step of the way, but also plan next steps past high school graduation, and long-term care, if necessary. Incuentro helps to facilitate the discussion and provide resources for caregivers wanting to learn what options are available.

With April designated as Autism Awareness Month, Incuentro seeks to partner with organizations serving special needs populations, such as school districts, health clinics, or Autism support networks, and reach the people who need it most. Incuentro has pledged to donate a portion of its profits to a Houston non-profit that offers in-person classes for people with special needs, Social Motion. At its heart, Incuentro intends to be an answer to the question: how do we set individuals with special needs up for success, and help give them the tools to live an independent and fulfilling life?

Brandi Timmons (left) and Wendi Dawson, Incuentro founderCourtesy of Incuentro

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

Trending News