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Being an entrepreneur is answer for some with autism
Opportunity » Autistic can run businesses if given a chance to find something they like.


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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.

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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.


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"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.

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