Turning awareness into action

Gazette photo by Kintura Williams
Sara Mae Hickey, 25, owner and operator of Puzzles Bakery and Café in Schenectady, was honored at Autism Action Day at the state Capitol. Her business is unique because employees work in an integrated environment, employing adults with and without developmental disabilities. She is joined by Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara who sponsors five bills aimed at improving the lives of New Yorkers with autism.



In an effort to pass legislation aimed at assisting New Yorkers with autism and developmental disabilities, Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara joined advocates to present the first-ever “Autism Action Award” to Sara Mae Hickey, owner of a café that employs autistic adults.

Santabarbara unveiled five bills he hopes will increase job opportunities, provide independent housing options, improve access to information about autism, provide interpersonal communication training, and create a centralized resource location in New York for people with autism.

“About 1-in-68 children in the United States are living with autism, and at some point it will be 1-in-68 adults,” Santabarbara said. “We need to turn awareness into action, and Autism Action Day is an opportunity to do that.”

Santabarbara presented the first Autism Action Award to Sara Mae Hickey, 25, owner and operator of Puzzles Bakery and Café in Schenectady. The business is unique in that its employees work in an integrated environment, employing adults with and without developmental disabilities. Its business model speaks to one of the most important needs for adults with autism —  employment.

“What Puzzles does is it fosters awareness and understanding within the community,” Hickey said. “People come in and they learn about autism and our cause.”

Hickey, a 25 year old Schenectady resident, came up with the idea for Puzzles during her time at the Clinton Global Initiative, whose mission is to turn ideas into action. Hickey recognized the need for employment opportunities for adults with autism. Providing this employment for autistic adults helps foster their independence and gives them a chance to engage in their communities.

She spent the past two years working to open the restaurant and establish it in the community.

According to Hickey, Puzzles Bakery and Café is getting global attention.

“Every day I get letters and emails asking me to open up more locations. I’ve heard from Ohio, California, and even New Zealand. I have a list of 600 applicants who want a job right now,” she said.

The demand for employment for autistic adults is staggering. “We need more people to step up and create opportunities for people with disabilities,” Hickey said. “I was honestly surprised that the name Puzzles wasn’t already taken.”

The next step for Hickey is to open more locations in the Capital Region, and eventually franchise, so that more communities across the United States and the world can open businesses under the Puzzles model.

Assemblyman Santabarbara organized Autism Action Day in order to highlight legislation that will bring attention to the needs of the developmentally disabled population in New York.

The first bill would create a statewide Autism Spectrum Disorder Advisory Board (A. 8635) to implement the rest of the Autism Action Plan. The second bill, (A.5141), would include communication support among the suite of services currently offered to job seekers in the state’s vocational rehab centers.

The third bill would address the overwhelming housing issue for those New Yorkers with autism by providing an interest-free loan to families in order to build apartments on their property for their family members with autism (A.8696).

The fourth bill (A.8708) improve access to information and technology for those with autism, by ensuring that official state and local municipal web sites have multi-design options for persons with developmental disabilities so they can access important information easier.

Finally, the fifth bill, (A.8389) would mandate a first-of-its-kind standardized autism ID card to help people with autism communicate with law enforcement and first responders in emergency situations.

The events of Autism Action Day were greeted with support from local autism advocates, including Schenectady ARC, Liberty ARC, the Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region, and the New York State Association of Community and Residential Agencies.

Santabarbara, whose 14-year-old son Michael is autistic, added, “We must do everything we can to provide those affected by autism with the support and resources needed to help engage the community on their own terms. Now is the time and this is the day to take action.”