Amazing Mom Helps Son with Autism Fulfill Dream of Opening Bakery
Photo credit: MSN
For many people with autism, adulthood poses even more difficulties than childhood. Shelly Henley is the mother of Jacob Wittman, and she knew this better than most people.
But she did not let her son fall to the wayside, like so many children with autism do when they cross the threshold into adulthood. She had a plan to establish success for her son.
Today, her son bakes cupcakes for weddings and sells baked goods at a local farmer’s market. He has found more success than many people, autism or not, with his business. It is called No Label at the Table and is in Indiana.
Autism and unemployment
It is an unfortunate fact that only about 19 percent of adults with autism are employed, according to a survey conducted by a survey conducted by a joint effort between Nova Southeastern University, the University of Miami, and the nonprofit organization Integrate Autism Employment Advisors. Most of those jobs are part-time.
Without serious support, Jacob Wittman probably would have been part of the 81 percent without a job. As Shelly explained, “You go until you age out of school then you fall off a cliff. My son would’ve been sitting in the basement playing video games and collecting disability.”
Jacob did not have as good of a school career as some other children on the spectrum. He was not able to engage in high school academics and so does not have a diploma. He did not have the social skills necessary to successfully engage in a job interview.
His mother had feared the future. “He would’ve been relegated to a dishwasher position, and that’s not where he wanted to be.”
Out of the oven
When Jacob was eighteen years old, he told his mother that he wanted to be a chef. His autism prevented him from going to culinary school, but Shelly was determined to make his dreams come true anyway.
Shelly explained, “any parent wants to help their child live to their full potential.” To seek out that potential, she teamed up with her young adult son to form a bakery. Even from the beginning the dream included a more ambitious plan than just a mother and son baking cupcakes together.
She found two other young adults on the autism spectrum and recruited them as well, and the four started a bakery they named No Label at the Table.
No labels at this bakery
The name has several meanings. As she explained, “no label or diagnosis prevents my employees from living to their full potential, and no food label should limit any individual from having good food.” The naming of the business was not a solitary effort; both mother and son equally contributed to the name.
Ensuring that anybody can have their baked goods is one half of No Label at the Table’s mission. All of the baked goods are made without any dairy products and are also all gluten free. This choice is much appreciated by people who often cannot find suitable sweets for sale.
The other part of the name No Label at the Table refers to the difficulties that people on the autism spectrum face among people who do not know better, and how this business would be different.
All too often people who do not know a person on the spectrum will hear that the person has autism and they mentally relegate the person with autism to a lesser category. This type of labeling is directly harmful toward people with autism, and does not benefit the people who do the labeling.
It is this type of discrimination which Shelly is attempting to fight.
Except for her, every single employee of the bakery is on the autism spectrum. They started with three such employees but currently, after only four months, have thirteen. Their goal is to have twenty-five employees, all on the spectrum.
Everyone is employed between four and eighteen hours per week currently, and the bakery operates out of a rented space, baking just once a week. They do not have a storefront; No Label at the Table sells at three different farmers markets and can fulfill special orders.
An edge instead of a disability
Jacob’s autism came with some other differences from the typical person. He has a hypersensitive sense of smell, and his palate is more able to discern flavors than the average person.
This, combined with his focus on learning how to produce better baked goods, has led to the creation of wonderful new flavors. More than just experimental, they are balanced as well.
Some examples are muffins with basil and strawberry, and cookies combining lemon and almond. He is not yet finished innovating, and researches constantly for new flavors and recipes.
Raising more than just cake
No Label at the Table has been good to its employees more than just as a source of income. For some, it has given them a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
The employment has helped Jacob. Shelly explained, “a year ago I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was battling him every day to get out of his room, to get his schoolwork done.”
That has changed for the better now that Jacob gets to enrich people’s lives by feeding them sweet baked goods. She continued, “now he’s up and ready to go at 7:30 in the morning, and he can work a 12-hour day.”
Even his academic ability has improved. Jacob uses the online school Hoosier Academies to take high school classes. He uses this schooling to further increase his ability to follow his dream by focusing on topics such as business and chemistry.
The improvements to his life are visible in other respects as well. As Sherry recounts, “he literally walks taller. He’s a part of peoples’ weddings. He’s a part of peoples’ birthday parties now. It has given him a purpose in life.”
Other employees have found the same inspiration. Jessica Reed was one of their first people with autism to be hired. She helps package the baked goods for No Label at the Table, though she is learning how to bake.
Before she was hired, she had a difficult time with most things. Even simple tasks such as washing her face or getting out of bed would sometimes be too much. But she is much improved now.
Like Jacob, Jessica gets up early. Early enough that, as Shelly says, “...she’s making a meal for her family, so she’s not late to work.” Her social life has also improved. “She gets out, she is around people her own age, she’s doing something productive, having meaning in life and connecting socially.”
The caregivers of the other employees have also found that their wards have been enriched by the employment and have given support to Shelly and her son.
Baking up the future
Shelly and Jacob’s bakery is not the only small business to focus on giving employment and life enrichment to adults on the autism spectrum or with other disabilities.
Rising Tide, in Florida, is a car wash that employees people with autism. Bitty & Beau’s is a coffee shop in North Carolina that was established in 2016 that is run by men and women who have a wide range of intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Perhaps more and more of these places will open their doors to people with autism and other difficulties, and that 19 percent employment rate can explode all the way to 90 percent. The satisfaction of helping people and providing for themselves would be of great benefit for those adults.
It is almost always a good thing when a dream becomes reality. In the case of Jacob Wittman and his mother, Shelly Henley, their combined dream not only became real, but is also uplifting other people. As Shelly said, “not only has my son found his life purpose, but I have also.”