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Sibling Talks Autism, Employment and New Bakery Called "Puzzles"

Autism Speaks Staffer Kerry Magro interviewed Sara Mae Hickey, the Owner of Puzzles Bakery & Café, a new business in upstate New York that is committed to hiring adults with special needs. Puzzles seeks to "solve the puzzle" of autism and adulthood by providing opportunities for personal growth, as well as a source of income, social interaction, and a sense of purpose for individuals of all abilities. You can read more about Puzzles on our site here.

Kerry Magro: Hey Sara! Can you tell our readers how you came about the idea of Puzzles?

Sara Mae Hickey: It all started when I was living in Manhattan and working as an intern for the Clinton Foundation. The Clinton Global Initiative’s mission is to turn ideas into action, so I had the opportunity to see a lot of phenomenal projects making a difference around the world. I used to think I might want to join the Peace Corps and volunteer in a developing nation, but then it occurred to me—  there’s so many ways to help my own community here in the United States: the autism community. 

When my sister was diagnosed in 1995, I believe the prevalence of autism was 1 in 500. Now we’re looking at 1 in 68, and the numbers keep growing. In my mind, one of the biggest challenges is the fact that autism is a lifelong disability. All of the children who were diagnosed with autism in the early 1990’s are now becoming adults.  Meanwhile, programs and funding for adults with special needs are constantly getting cut. As my sister started nearing her transition to adulthood, I would feel these moments of panic— what’s going to happen to Emily when she doesn’t attend school anymore? My sister requires 24/7 care and supervision, but we are faced with virtually no residential options or employment opportunities. What is in store for the rest of her life? How could I make the future a little brighter for people like Emily? And thus, Puzzles Bakery & Café was born. 

When did you first know you wanted to get involved in the autism and special need community?

As the sibling of a young woman with autism, the special needs community has been a huge part of my life for the past two decades. My father and mother were the president and vice president of our local chapter of the Autism Society for many years, so I've grown up surrounded by countless families in our community who are touched by autism. It’s always been so much bigger than my sister and our family— individuals and families throughout the nation are facing the same challenges. I've witnessed the triumphs and struggles firsthand, so I decided to try and make a difference in the community that I know best.

How did you come up with the name Puzzles? It has been very well received so far it seems.

After I came up with the concept, the name itself was a no-brainer. Autism is often conveyed with puzzle pieces, as seen in the popular Autism Awareness ribbon or the Autism Speaks logo. I was actually shocked that no one came up with the name before I did! 

We loved your interview with where you discussed the need for adult services for those with autism. What do you think our community needs to do better to continue that conversation?

Housing, higher education, and employment. As I mentioned before, group homes and daytime programs are filled to capacity, college is rarely an option, and employment opportunities are extremely uncommon for adults with special needs. We need to start looking at the big picture! Autism affects entire families; mothers, fathers, and siblings who can't work because they need to act as full-time caregivers. The need is greater now more than ever for nonprofit organizations, corporations, philanthropists, and local, state, and federal governments to step in and fill the gap by creating and funding much-needed services.

What's next for you and Puzzles? Do you know when Puzzles will officially open and when we can stop by for a visit?

We have not announced an official opening date yet, but you can expect a soft opening toward the end of the summer. While the media attention is very exciting, we're trying to keep the opening low-key in order to ease our employees into the workplace. But by all means, please stop by when our doors are open for business! The success of Puzzles Bakery & Café relies on the support of our patrons. As for the future, we intend to build a replicable and sustainable Puzzles Bakery & Café pilot at our first location in Schenectady, then launch additional locations with profits generated from the first shop. In addition to bringing Puzzles to other communities throughout the United States, we wish to serve as a model for other for-profit businesses to employ individuals with special needs. 

You can learn more about Puzzles via their website here and on Facebook here