DETROIT — MyKail Moultrie, 4, and Miguel Moultrie, 2, spend much of their time playing outside or going to behavioral therapy and school. But they’re also helping their mom run a business.
Packaging T-shirts is a part of their family’s routine on Mondays when the kids return home from their activities. Their mom, Tiera Turner, 28, says a routine is necessary for their household because her boys are “busy bees.”
The Detroit-based family business, The Vend Bros, also will soon include vending machines, which Turner will be able to tend to on the family’s schedule.
Turner created the business model because she wanted to provide structure for her oldest son, who has autism.
Turner also hopes the business will build generational wealth for her sons.
“Money needs to be taught early. Saving habits need to be taught early. These things were missing,” Turner said. “I’m almost 30 years old and I’m just now learning about savings. My mother wasn’t taught and her mother wasn’t taught. It takes one person to take that leap. I’m just here to break cycles.”
In creating The Vend Bros, Turner also wanted a business that wouldn’t take too much of her time since her kids are young.
So she started the business in early 2020 and decided, during the coronavirus pandemic, to add vending subscription boxes in addition to launching the vending machines this fall. The boxes will contain snacks including gluten-free and low-sugar ones for people with autism. The subscription boxes, for a monthly fee, will be available for purchase on The Vend Bros website in a couple of months. Boxes can also be purchased to give to others.
The T-shirts the family already sells have messages meant to bring awareness to autism. Some of the profits from sales are donated to the nonprofit Autism Speaks, which provides advocacy and support for people with autism and their families.
T-shirts with sayings like “Work smarter not harder” and “Legacy wealth” are available for sale on The Vend Bros website, and those proceeds go to her kids. Turner also wrote and illustrated a book called “Affirmations from A to Z,” which is a book that was inspired by her children and teaches young people to believe in themselves through affirmations. She is in the process of writing another book.
“We want people to know that it’s OK to be accepted out here in the world and to not let any title or any diagnosis stop you from being what you’re supposed to be,” said Turner. “We don’t let any disability disable us.”
Other Michigan businesses and nonprofits, like the Autism Alliance of Michigan and Full Spectrum Agency for Autistic Adults, are working toward a similar world for people with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism is defined as a range of conditions that bring “challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication,” the Autism Speaks website says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 54 children has autism spectrum disorder, which is a change from the 2000s when it was reported that 1 in 150 children had the diagnosis.
A person also can be diagnosed with autism later in life.
Katie Oswald, 41, of Bay City was diagnosed at age 37. She founded Full Spectrum Agency for Autistic Adults in 2018. Full Spectrum is a group of about 350 adult members who have autism. Oswald works with others to host programming and virtual social events for the group.
She explained that she processes moments about 10 times faster than what most people are experiencing. When someone with autism is overwhelmed, she compares it with trying to get work done in the median of an intersection like I-94.
“There’s planes flying overhead; there’s cars zooming past; music blaring out of people’s cars and it just feels chaotic and dangerous,” said Oswald. “It took a lot of interacting with people to even realize that that wasn’t the way that other people were experiencing the world.”
Oswald said it is so important to create and keep a routine like the Moultrie brothers have in place with The Vend Bros business. Every Monday is a day to fulfill packages for the family.
“They live by routine. They live by pattern,” said Turner. “It’s not the same every day. My oldest son is in ABA therapy, and that is behavioral therapy for people on the spectrum. … My children love to play outside, but during the cold parts of the pandemic, it was harder in the house with our routine. Dealing with his routine is an issue that we struggle with weekly.”
If Turner has to run an errand, she tries to have that done before picking her son up from therapy. If not, running an errand with him can throw off his routine.
Oswald experiences the same routine disruptions, but she said she is aware of her limits and boundaries. Every Saturday, Oswald makes a color-coded schedule on a Microsoft Excel sheet that she can refer to throughout the week that keeps her on a routine.
“Feeling empowered to manage your own schedule and create your own routine has been very crucial to me,” said Oswald. “It’s something I encourage autistic people in general — as you’re going through that process of becoming more independent, it’s so important to be able to manage your time well, and it’s something we struggle with quite a bit.”
Although Oswald works with other adults with autism, she has advice that she offers to parents who have children that are either diagnosed with autism or are showing signs of it.
“Every child is different and everybody has different ways that they communicate their needs,” said Oswald. “I would encourage people to listen to what their child is saying. … Really pay attention to your child’s limits because if an autistic person is saying they’re overwhelmed, whether they’re saying it with words or saying it with their behaviors, they need to take a step back and take a break.”
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