Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Students with autism at Michigan school run successful dog biscuit business

From The Detroit News:

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. -- The enticing aroma of baking biscuits envelops the room, but workers at a nearby table remain focused on the task at hand: making more biscuits.

There's Alex (pictured), who kneads the dough standing up, pushing the light-brown mixture of flour and oil around the bowl. Josh sits, grasping the handles of a rolling pin, transforming a lump into a pancake. And finally, Evan pushes a dog-bone shaped biscuit cutter deep into the dough, pulling out tiny shapes for baking.

The well-tuned trio is part of a student-run business at Seaholm High School designed for students with autism.

Seaholm teacher Debra Lloyd started the program last year to help the teens, who range in age from 14 to 18, with their vocational training for life in the outside world.

Their product is "Puppy Love" biscuits and natural treats for canines in peanut butter and beef flavors. And business for the teen entrepreneurs just took off.

Last month, online retailer, a Michigan-based company, announced it would include a free sample of the treats baked by the students with any order.

In the classroom, with teacher supervision, students are in charge of following a recipe, preparing and cutting the dough along with weighing the biscuits, packaging and record-keeping.

The goal of the program is to get the kids involved now in the world of work so they can make the transition into the work force once they leave school. The school district pays for the program, and all profits are reinvested.

"I wanted to start a business that my students could participate in that involved a lot of kids with a range of ability levels. Some kids work hand over hand and some are totally independent," Lloyd said.

Autism is a developmental disorder affecting 1 in 110 U.S. children. It makes communication and social interaction difficult, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

Lessons in money-management, accounting and self-achievement are worked in while teachers work with students on fine motor skills, their ability to begin and finish a task and be a part of meaningful work, teacher Madelyn Phillips said.

Employment rates for adults with autism are low: 6 percent, according to the Web site Yet high-functioning autistic adults can offer employers sought-after skills, Phillips said, such as intense attention to detail, a single-minded focus and a willingness to work on something until perfection.

At Seaholm, there are other micro-businesses in the autism program. Some students make beaded jewelry, from bracelets to necklaces to key chains. Other craft greeting cards, and others sew gift bags from donated cloth.

"It teaches them to work as a group," Lloyd said. "It gives them stamina. They sometimes can only work a minute at a time and take a break. We work to expand that."

Initially, teachers were buying the biscuits for their dogs or as gifts. Then Lloyd got the idea to sell them and worked with the owner of Premier Pet Supply in Beverly Hills, which carries them in the store.

The owners of, which has offices in Huntington Woods and Jackson, called the school and said they wanted to purchase the students' product and include them in their orders as a community service.

Company co-owner L. Hope Hesano has a brother with Asperger's syndrome, which is a form of autism. She said the first sample of Puppy Love treats was mailed last week with an order.

"So many online companies have no connection to the local community and we wanted to make sure we had one," Hesano said.