Autistic adult is an entrepreneur
Matthew Morreale, thought to be 1st local example of statewide trend, operates 1-man shredding business.
Matthew Morreale’s goals are simple. He wants to go to Disney theme parks in Paris, in Tokyo, in Orlando – so he works.
His mom hopes for more. She dreams of independence for her autistic son. She imagines that he someday will live in his own apartment, earning enough money to pay for it himself. She wouldn’t worry so much about dying someday if she knew Matthew could do all that.
As the autism boom ages its way through the education system, thousands of Orange County children with autism will soon enter adulthood. Matthew Morreale, 24, could help answer a question that vexes advocates, politicians and parents of autistic children: Can we help these adults be more than a tax burden?
Matthew is thought to be the first local example of a statewide trend. He runs a microenterprise, a small niche business that can be launched with minimal funding yet make a steady profit.
There are adults with developmental disabilities running mall kiosks and selling hand-made bags. They own floral businesses and they stage puppet shows for children’s parties.
Matthew runs the Matthew James Co., a shredding business that began this year with a single client but is already looking to hire additional employees. His brochure promises that he’ll “shred the competition.”
“Self-sufficiency and independence means not only lessening the impact on the budget, so they don’t have to rely on social supports,” said Dorsey Griffith, a spokeswoman for the state’s department of developmental services. “These people are good workers, and they’re happier when they’re working and they’re part of the community.”
The growing prevalence of autism in Orange County schools is striking. There are 156 students who are 17 and have autism – a 500 percent increase from just six year ago.
Go down the line a few grades and the numbers grow. There are 334 students who are 11 years old with autism. Among 5-year-olds, the number is 507.
When Matthew was diagnosed at age 5, he was one of only a few in Orange County, and his future looked bleak.
He threw tantrums to the point that his mother, Marthe Morreale, wouldn’t take him out in public. He couldn’t shower alone until well into his teen years.
“You just go down this dark road of, oh my gosh, there’s no future for this boy,” Marthe Morreale said. “At that age, you aren’t thinking future. It was hard thinking about 10 years’ time when you can’t get through the next 10 minutes.”
With the help of some patient and strong-willed aides, Matthew calmed down during his teenage years. After high school, his job coach, Cassandra Novak, helped him get a retail job at a clothing store.
He enjoyed it, but grew frustrated that he couldn’t get more hours. Novak, who is the microenterprise business development manager at Goodwill of Orange County, suggested he start his own business.
His first client was Atria Woodbridge, a senior living center in Irvine. Once a week he takes his shredder – about waist-high, and about 50 pounds – and shreds junk mail, old bills and business documents for residents and staff.
The center always has a cold Coke waiting for him. Residents sometimes come by to talk to him, though Matthew isn’t very verbal with strangers. His mom drives him there but is forbidden from his workplace. “He’s very independent,” she said.
“He’s the type of young man I’d like to have volunteer here, because he’s a good listener and he takes an interest in the conversations,” said Ladd Roberts, executive director of Atria Woodbridge.
In August, he’ll expand to serve the Regional Center of Orange County, which has also helped provide startup support for his business. He’ll shred thousands of pounds of center documents using Goodwill’s industrial-sized shredding machines.
“He’s for real, the real deal,” said Bill Bowman, chief executive officer of the center, a state-funded organization that provides services and support for people with developmental disabilities. “They meet our very high confidentiality requirements.”
His job coach was worried about the noise from the larger shredders. Like many people with autism, Matthew is sensitive to loud and unfamiliar noises, Novak said.
No problem, he told Novak. “When we’re making noise, we’re making money.”
Novak and Matthew are considering hiring other developmentally disabled adults to help. Novak says he could eventually make $3,000 a month.
That income is a big deal to people with developmental disabilities, said Joe Meadours, executive director of People First, an advocacy group run by developmentally disabled adults.
“People are getting sick of getting paid nothing,” he said. “How can we make a career earning 50 cents an hour?”
For Matthew, the money means fulfilling his own dreams of taking his family to Disney theme parks around the world. For now, he has to be content with his weekly visits to Disneyland on his days off.
“You know, if you think about it, that’s probably as legitimate a goal as you and I have in our lives,” Roberts said. “And he may come closer to realizing it before we do.”