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Small businesses: Entrepreneurship the answer for some with autism

First Published Aug 15 2014 02:06PM      Last Updated Aug 15 2014 02:22 pm

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 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 & 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 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 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.

INSPIRED BY A KING

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.

 

Business owners with autism capitalize on strengths

A growing movement to find work for autistic people is helping some start their own businesses.

Work requiring an attention to detail and with repetitive tasks is ideal for an autistic person who wants to start a business, says Gregg Ireland, co-founder of Extraordinary Ventures, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based organization that creates jobs for the autistic. Ireland’s son Vinnie, who is autistic, has a business doing yard work and landscaping.

One in 68 people have some form of autism, according to government figures. It is diagnosed more often in males than in females. There are different degrees of autism; many people have trouble communicating, comprehending spoken or written words and interacting with others. In the most severe cases, autistic people cannot speak or interact with others, are unable to learn and need lifetime care.

There are many misconceptions about the autistic. Some people believe they are violent, not intelligent and that they either don’t want to work or can’t work hard, says Michael Rosen, an executive vice president with Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization.

People with the mildest forms of autism are able to attend mainstream schools including college. Many do well at jobs that focus on details. They may struggle in jobs that require them to have continual contact with co-workers or the public.

More autistic people can become business owners if they’re allowed to develop interests that can be turned into a living, says Temple Grandin, one of the best-known advocates for people with autism. Diagnosed with autism when she was 4, she has a business designing systems to handle livestock. She became interested in animals working on a farm in her teens.

Advocacy groups are looking for ways to create business opportunities for autistic people. The Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, based in Phoenix, helps autistic people start home-based food businesses. And Autism Speaks has held town hall meetings to introduce autistic people to the idea of starting companies. The organization has offices in Los Angeles, New York and Princeton, New Jersey.

— Joyce M. Rosenberg, The Associated Press

 

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