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.
INSPIRED BY A KING