It wasn’t until six years ago that 46-year-old Eileen Parker learned she had autism. Born in Canada, Parker was non-verbal until the age of 5 and as an adult, has had a hard time holding down a job. She found routine office tasks difficult, from sitting in a chair to working on a computer to deciphering sound in a crowded space. When she was finally diagnosed, it felt like a weight had been lifted.
“It really explained a lot of things,” says Parker, a resident of Minneapolis. “I also learned that in addition to autism, I have Sensory Processing Disorder, which means that input into my brain isn’t processed correctly.”
But in 2008, Parker had a life-changing moment that would reverse her disappointing career path and lead her to build a unique and successful small business. A couple years after she was diagnosed, she went to see an occupational therapist. As part of Parker's treatment, the therapist covered her with a hospital-grade weighted blanket.
“I felt amazing the moment she put the blanket on me,” Parker says.
She says the blanket works on the body’s sensory system, "overloading all sensory input so that all you feel is weight on the body. It causes feelings of relaxation within three to five minutes. I’d never had that before. It overrode all of my stress.”
An Idea in Motion
Parker was so taken by the blanket’s effect on her that she looked into buying her own. Her research revealed that most weighted blankets are homemade, which sparked the idea of starting her own commercial medical blanket company.
“I wanted to make a blanket soft enough for people with sensory issues, so I went through the patent process, worked with professional sewers, hired a few people, and founded Cozy Calm,” she says.
Cozy Calm is entirely online and sells to medical supply stores and hospitals. Parker says that the company has grown from $28,000 in sales in 2010 to more than $100,000 in 2011, with this year's numbers on a course "to triple that."
The Realities of Autism
As you might imagine, along with Parker's success also comes the numerous challenges of being an owner with autism.
“I have a hidden disability that you can’t physically see, which means people don’t know how to work with it,” she says. “I’ve had to educate my staff as to how my brain works.”
Social cues are especially difficult for Parker. She has a hard time picking up on conversational subtleties or deciphering the real meaning of a comment when it isn’t apparent in speech. She also struggles to verbally express her feelings. On a recent trip with a staff member to check out office space, Parker started waving her arms and walking on her toes.
“Sandy, my staff member, picked up on my movements; she knew my autism was getting agitated and that I didn’t know how to deal with the situation,” Parker says. “She knew from my actions that I didn’t like the space but just couldn’t say it, so she got us out of there.”
Parker admits that she doesn't always deal with her disability well. “The learning curve is incredible—and never-ending,” she says.
Words of Wisdom
In talking about other businesspeople with disabilities, Parker says that being brave and trusting your entrepreneurial spirit and key components.
“I was so scared that people wouldn’t accept me, but I’ve found people to actually be really supportive," she says.
Also, Parker suggests talking to and networking with other small business owners with disabilities and find out how they do it. Once she did some outreach she says she found that "there are a surprising number of entrepreneurs out there with autism.”
For helpful resources, check out Global Network for Entrepreneurs with Disabilities.
If you or someone you know is a small businessperson with a disability or impairment, tell us your story?
Photo credit: Eileen Parker