Q&A with Erika Gleeson

Q&A with Erika Gleeson, Founder/CEO of Autism Swim and Senior Behaviour Specialist/Director at WeFlex Pty Ltd

PIEoneer awards

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do in the community and youth sector?

By way of background, I'm a Senior Behaviour Specialist; which involves me working with individuals who have a range of complex behavioural challenges. Most of these people have a disability and use their behaviour to communicate certain messages. Around 6 years ago I stumbled across the drowning statistics for those on the autism spectrum, and as a result, founded the charity Autism Swim; which now operates in over 20 countries. Around two years ago I became a Director of an awesome start-up in the health and fitness space for those with a disability; called WeFlex. And I'm consulting on a range of projects in the sector. As you can see, I've been embedded in the disability sector since my career began, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

What is an example of an innovative program or initiative that you have implemented in the last year that you consider impactful?

A few examples spring to mind:

  • Autism Swim re-launched a new and improved water safety App for children with a disability. This is a world-first.

  • Alongside some of my colleagues at WeFlex, we're developing a podcast to showcase the stories of those with lived experiences and provide an open forum for the hard questions.

  • I assisted a client of mine who is on the autism spectrum to launch his own business, called Paddy's Pick-Up. This was on the back-end of there being no suitable employment opportunities for his needs, and to create the opportunity with his parents was incredibly rewarding.

What help or support do young people need to really thrive in this new COVID world?

There have never been more opportunities available to you than there are now; be it online or face to face (which in itself can be overwhelming). Connection is something we have all missed and probably didn't realise the importance of it until it was taken away.

First and foremost, find your hub of support and rely on them as your safety net, to give you the confidence and stability to try new things and tread through life more boldly. Finding a mentor would also be recommended (there are loads of great connecting services that offer this, or alternatively, don't be afraid to reach out directly to those you admire in your field).

My experience in leadership roles is that the leader is often the last person to receive support. Founders in particular are usually so concerned with the welfare of their team, their customers, their Board etc, that no one is actually looking after them! They say it can be lonely at the top, and they're not wrong - so make sure you are surrounded by the good stuff. Also, try and capitalise on the flexible working conditions being offered by a lot of organisations - the hybrid model can ensure a really good balance of solo/deep-thought time, as well as innovation through collaboration with coworkers.

Anything else you'd like to share from your experience to help our readers and the youth community?

If you are looking for experience with leadership, decision-making, solving social issues with less red tape, efficient communication and innovation; you can't go past start-up life. The pace at which you have to iterate, pivot, test, launch, scale, make huge decisions etc - is unlike anything you will experience in a traditional workplace. It feels like bungee jumping but without the certainty of whether the rope has been attached properly or not. It's so exhausting yet somehow addictive.

Some days it feels like the world is falling apart, and being embedded in and passionate about the community/social impact space makes you feel like the future can look brighter and that significant reform is possible. The sector needs passion, innovation and the minds and voices of the youth of today so thank you for being a part of that, and never underestimate the compelling impact that one person can have.

Similar Inspiring Social Entrepreneurs


Q&A with Derek Tweed

In the past 12 months, the Liverpool Youth Council has worked hard to prioritise support initiatives for education, employment and mental health within the local area Read More


Q&A with Rosie Schofield

Evidence has shown that connection to culture and community is essential for our jarjums (children) and young people to thrive. Read More


Q&A with Angelique Wan & Dr. Joyce Yu

We’ve remained flexible, resilient and open-minded to the challenges thrown our way. Read More