Autism Action Day in Albany

In an effort to pass a package of bills aimed at assisting New Yorkers with autism and developmental disabilities, Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara joined with autism advocates and presented the first Autism Action Award, to Sara Mae Hickey, owner of a cafe that employs autistic adults at the first Autism Action Day.

Santabarbara unveiled the five point package of legislation aimed at increasing job opportunities, providing independent housing options, improving access to information, assisting in communication, and creating 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 cafe in Schenectady, NY. Puzzles bakery 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 give them a chance to engage in their communities. She spent the past two years working to open the restaurant until they opened about a year ago.

According to Hickey, the first Puzzles bakery and cafe is getting global attention. “Everyday 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.”

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 Schenectady area, and eventually franchise, so that more communities across the United States and the world can open businesses with the Puzzles model.

Assemblyman Santabarbara organized Autism Action day in order to introduce a series of bills 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 add communication support to the existing vocational rehab centers in New York to improve employment outcomes for those with autism.

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 will work to make access to information and technology easier for those with autism, by ensuring that devices have appropriate software (A.8708).

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 Capitol Region, and the New York State Association of Community and Residential Agencies (NYSACRA).

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.”

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