August 17, 2014 in City

Entrepreneurship helps some with disability build meaningful careers

Joyce M. Rosenberg Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Matt Cottle, owner of Stuttering King Bakery, holds a tray of his scones in his parents’ kitchen in Scottsdale, Ariz., on July 15.
(Full-size photo)

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 Resource Center, or SARRC, connected Cottle with a pastry chef who mentored him. In August 2012, he unexpectedly got an order from a cafe operated by Phoenix-based SARRC. At that point, Cottle told his parents he was starting his own baking business.

“I’m happy as an angel,” he says.

Changing attitudes

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 4 years old.

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.

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.

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 six to 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.

Overcoming obstacles

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.

Playing to 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.

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.

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