Empowering My Special Needs Son to Reach for the Stars
As an autism parent, you find yourself in a lot of unanticipated roles through your child’s life. I’ve found out I was a pretty good playmate, tantrum wrangler, list maker, and scheduler. We are all thrust into roles like attorney, speech therapist, tutor, and reading specialist—roles we have no training for other than it is imperative we are our child’s most enthusiastic supporter. One of the roles I never thought I’d have is entrepreneur.
Our company, No Label at the Table Food Company, began when my son was turning 18 years old and transitioning to adulthood. He said he wanted to be a chef in a restaurant. Initially, I giggled and told him, “No, you like to eat at restaurants!” Then I realized, no, of course, he wants to cook. He started a gluten/casein free diet when he was a toddler.
Eighteen years ago, no one knew what gluten-free was, so I pulled him up on the kitchen island, and we baked. Baking and cooking are process-driven. You follow the steps and, in the end, you get a yummy reward. It was very satisfying work for him.
Being a chef would have been impossible for my son. He wasn’t verbal enough to make it through an interview. If a restaurant would take a chance on him, he’d be relegated to the dishwasher. He has an incredible palate and, like most people on the spectrum, amazing detail and process skills. A dishwashing position would be a waste of his potential and most likely a disaster.
To live the life you want to, to enjoy your work and feel validated is important for everyone —especially for someone with special needs. Work must be enjoyable. Otherwise, it’s another tedious task in a world that doesn’t always make sense. So, with a lot of hope and hustle, we decided to make his dream of being a chef a reality and give other people’ s children an opportunity for meaningful work as well. Our employees produce high-quality gluten and dairy free baked goods.
The company has grown from four employees on the spectrum to 13. We are a scalable social enterprise. All our employees earn a wage. Their work is of the same value as their non-disabled peers. Their brick and mortar shop open in Carmel, Indiana in 2017. Not everyone can become an entrepreneur.
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But there are some things I did to help my son become the man he was meant to be. Start identifying your child’s passion early. It may not be a traditional career. It may simply be a compulsion to complete tasks.
We also enrolled him in an online public charter school powered by K12. It afforded us the flexibility to try different things. When we removed him from the traditional brick and mortar school setting, he thrived. He needed an anxiety-free zone. K12 lets us identify his best learning style and space. This also empowered him to become successful as an adult.
All parents want their children to grow to be happy, fulfilled people. As a parent of someone with special needs, you should expect no less. Everyone wants to do something interesting. Everyone wants to feel like they are doing something useful. Everyone wants to feel like their work is needed, that need gives one a feeling that they are important.
Work adds to one’s self-worth. You don’t have to open a business but start early identifying what your child finds reinforcing and where he/she thrives. You’ll find his/her place because your greatest role is being your child most vocal and enthusiastic supporter.
Shelly Henley is the owner of No Label at the Table, a gluten free and dairy free baked good company and a parent of an adult child with autism. No Label at the Table’s goal is to function as a successful bakery with a certified gluten free kitchen that provides employment opportunities and job skills training for people with autism.
This is article was featured in Issue 74 – Every Voice Matters