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Entrepreneurship the Answer for Some With AutismAugust 19, 2014
When Matt Cottle asked his boss to let him work in the supermarket's bakery, she told him he'd never do anything more than collect grocery carts.
After six years of bagging groceries and pushing carts, Cottle wanted more. He had already learned how to do some baking.
Cottle is autistic. And today he's an entrepreneur, the owner of Stuttering King Bakery, turning out batches of cookies, brownies and scones for cafes and businesses and groups that need catering.
"I was like, OK, I am destined to do something greater than that," Cottle says in the kitchen of his family's Scottsdale, Arizona, home, where he spends hours each day filling orders. He generates $1,200 monthly. He named the business for Britain's King George VI, whose struggles to speak were the subject of the film "The King's Speech."
Cottle is one of a few known small business owners with autism, a brain disorder that affects a person's ability to comprehend, communicate and interact socially. There are varying degrees of autism, but even autistic people with the greatest capabilities can find it impossible to get a job because they take longer to read or process information, or because they struggle to hold conversations. One in 68 people have some form of autism, according to government figures.
There is a growing movement to help autistic adults find jobs, but for Cottle and his family, the answer was a business of his own.
Cottle had taken training to do search and rescue operations. And he tried working in a bakery. Both times, he encountered people who didn't understand him, and who ended up yelling at and insulting him, his mother, Peg Cottle, says. He wanted to enroll in a culinary school, but an administrator gently told him and his parents it wouldn't work out. Four years ago, the Southwest Autism Research and Research Center, or SAARC, connected Cottle with a pastry chef who mentored him. In August 2012, he unexpectedly got an order from a cafe operated by Phoenix-based SAARC. At that point, Cottle told his parents he was starting his own baking business.
"I'm happy as an angel," he says.
Many autistic people can run businesses if they're given the chance to discover something they like and develop skills around their interests, says Temple Grandin, one of the best-known advocates for people with autism.
"If you get them exposed to something, they can get a career," says Grandin, author of "The Autistic Brain."
Grandin, who has autism, didn't speak until she was four years old. In her teens, she was bullied by classmates who made fun of the way she spoke — she repeated the same phrases over and over.
"They called me 'tape recorder.'" she says.
In her teens, Grandin was exposed to horses at a boarding school and cattle on her aunt's ranch, and she began working with farm animals. She eventually created a business designing equipment for handling livestock.
People with the most severe autism aren't able to work because their disabilities limit their ability to learn. But it's only in the last two decades that society has come to realize that many people with disabilities including autism can work, says Paul Pizzutello, principal of Reach Academy, a West Harrison, New York, school whose students include some who are autistic.
"With many people with autism, it's not their intellect that a problem, it's their ability to engage with their environment and manage social contacts," he says.
When Cottle's parents tried to help him get a job, they explained to prospective bosses that because he is autistic, he needs more time to understand instructions. The companies either didn't want to take the time to learn how to work with him or they assumed Cottle might do or say inappropriate things. He grew frustrated by the unsuccessful attempts to find work.
"He was at a brick wall before he started his bakery," Peg Cottle says.
Soon after starting, Cottle and his mother attended entrepreneurship training classes offered by Seed Spot, an organization that helps socially responsible businesses.
"He's legitimate. The product he produces is the real deal. His disability doesn't even come into play as far as I'm concerned," says Chris Norcross, general manager of building company and Stuttering King customer Mortenson Construction. He orders as many as 300 cookies at a time.
The Cottles recently moved to a home with a larger kitchen, one that will allow Cottle to bake more and increase his revenue. He wants to expand.
"I hope I can set up shop and hopefully start interning and mentoring other people with autism," he says.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Autistic owners don't run their companies by themselves. Support from family members to interact with the public, take orders and handle marketing and billing is vital.
Peg Cottle takes orders and does marketing for Stuttering King Bakery. Cottle is able to speak, but talking on the phone can be difficult. If a customer gets chatty and strays from the basics of placing an order, it can be hard for Cottle to understand.
Vinnie Ireland has little language ability but owns landscaping company Weed Whacking Weasel in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The autistic man does leaf-blowing, hedge-trimming, mulching and other tasks, and works with an assistant trained to help the autistic. His mother, Lori Ireland, handles marketing and billing. The business has between six and 10 residential and commercial customers, depending on the time of year.
"When we tell him it's time to go to work, he jumps up," Lori Ireland says.
Autistic business owners are much like other entrepreneurs who concentrate on creating a product or delivering a service, and delegate the administrative work to others, says Vinnie's father, Gregg Ireland, a mutual fund portfolio manager and co-founder of Extraordinary Ventures, a group that finds opportunities for autistic people.
"In my business, I wouldn't be marketing. I wouldn't be able to keep the books," Gregg Ireland says.
Ireland's parents wanted to find a way to keep their son occupied and to build his self-esteem. They got the idea for Weed Whacking Weasel because he enjoyed doing gardening.
"A small business is so flexible and adaptable, and it's just suitable to solving our problems," Gregg Ireland says.
OVERCOMING AUTISM AND MORE
Joe Steffy is autistic and has Down syndrome, a congenital condition that affects a person's ability to understand and learn. He's unable to speak. But he has owned and run Poppin Joe's Gourmet Kettle Korn in Kansas City, Kansas, since 2005.
Steffy loves to work, his father Ray says. His family didn't believe teachers and counselors who said when he was in his teens that he'd need to live in a group home, that he wouldn't be able to work because he has a short attention span and can't focus. Instead, his parents looked for something he could do. They found the answer in a popcorn company.
About two-thirds of the company's revenue comes from events such as fairs and festivals. Customers also include convenience stores and corporations that give popcorn bags to employees.
"There isn't any job he can't do," Ray Steffy says of his son. He pops, seasons and bags the corn. And he supervises five part-time workers, all of whom he helps interview before they're hired.
Joe Steffy responded in writing to questions asked by a reporter. He said he loves his work and the independence it gives him.
"I have choices. I pay for things I love (skiing, swimming, flying)," he said. Steffy loves taking flights, especially to visit his sister in Milwaukee, his father says.
But Steffy also feels the stress that any business owner feels at times. When asked what he finds difficult about being a boss, he responded, "the intensity of producing (a) product when busy."
He oversees the entire process of popping the corn, paying close attention to details, says Christy Svoboda, one of Steffy's employees.
"He wants the bags looking presentable, like they come from a big manufacturer," Svoboda says.
PLAYING TO HIS STRENGTHS
Although Christopher Tidmarsh graduated from college with a degree in languages, environmental science and chemistry, he was in the same limbo as other autistic people. A post-college internship didn't work out because co-workers didn't make the accommodations he needed, like labeling drawers where he could find supplies, or communicating with him through emails rather than by talking. Job interviews were nearly impossible because he needs time to process the questions and come up with answers.
"People in the traditional work place don't know how to work with people with autism like me," Tidmarsh says.
The solution was starting Green Bridge Growers, a company that grows vegetables in water, a process called aquaponics. Tidmarsh has been building the business in South Bend, Indiana, with his mother, Janice Pilarski, the last two years. They came up with the idea for the business because it would allow him to use the knowledge he developed in college and internships with organic farmers.
While the company is still in its early stages, Tidmarsh is already thinking ahead to expand it beyond its current one greenhouse.
"Having my own business makes me feel as though I've accomplished something," he says.