August 19, 2014

Business owners with autism capitalize on strengths

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

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-based organization that creates jobs for people with autism. Ireland’s son Vinnie, who has autism, 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.

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 people with autism 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 when she worked on a farm in her teens.

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

Matt Cottle is one of a few known small business owners with autism. When he 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.

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 SAARC. At that point, Cottle told his parents he was starting his own baking business.

“I was like, OK, I am destined to do something greater than that,” Cottle says in the kitchen of his family’s Scottsdale, Ariz., home, where he spends hours each day filling orders. He generates $1,200 monthly. He named the business Stuttering King Bakery, for Britain’s King George VI, whose struggles to speak were the subject of the film “The King’s Speech.”

Says Cottle: “I’m happy as an angel.”

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