Midland teen with autism runs business with his dad
Midland — Tucker Mashue and his dad have a wicked case of wanderlust.
Like most parents, Dennis Mashue has big dreams for his only son. Those dreams are no different than usual: happiness, success, education and a career, but 17-year-old Tucker stands apart from his peers for a couple reasons.
He is an entrepreneur, and autistic.
“Autism, in a lot of ways, is more of a gift than a disability,” Dennis said during a recent trip with Tucker to walk the Pere Marquette Rail Trail. The two live in Midland with their dog Betty, are regulars on the Rail Trail and can often be seen kayaking down the Chippewa River during Michigan summers.
Both father and son are sporting tooques, colorful Nepalese hand-knitted hats lined with fleece, a product of their microbusiness and belief that people with disabilities have the right to make their impact as a valued part of society.
That belief is reaching substantial milestones with new federal regulations that would affect how people with disabilities are employed and treated by employers, according to Jan Lampman, executive director of the Arc of Midland.
The regulations would mean big changes for the nonprofit organization she leads, and for Dennis and Tucker’s microbusiness. It would enable Tucker to reach a level of independence his father has dreamed of. “I think Tucker is more capable than what is expected of him,” Dennis said. “He has a lot more potential to go a different path.”
The journey of Tuck’s Tooques started in 2014 as a result of Tucker’s love for the outdoors and his father’s wish to build his independence and social skills.
Tooques, or toques, seemed like a natural fit for Tucker, Dennis thought. He was inspired to begin laying the foundation for Tuck’s Tooques after they took a road trip in 2011 and he saw the change being outdoors had on Tucker.
“I never determined whether it was the mountain air, or the fact that we were free to do what we wanted,” Dennis said. “He was just so alert and engaged, and more verbal than he had ever been. He really seemed in his element.”
The tooques have since been given five stars by Examiner and caught the attention of Lonnie Dupre, a well-known wilderness explorer, who is starting to work with Dennis to promote and represent Tuck’s Tooques on his many expeditions around the world.
“It’s really huge,” Dennis said about the potential exposure Dupre’s renown offers their microbusiness. “It’s a big, big thing. You can’t get that kind of credibility anywhere else.”
Currently, Tuck’s Tooques can be purchased online through their website (www.tuckstooques.com) and in North Carolina, Minnesota, California and four places in Michigan, like Inertia Skate and Snowboard Shop in Midland and the Stables Outfitters in Saginaw.
Business is booming, according to Dennis, who spends hours online in an effort to spread the word even further about Tuck’s Tooques and regularly posts updates on their website about the duo’s activities. Next on the to-do list is visiting local ski hills and outdoor outfitters to educate even more retailers about the brand.
“We would like to pick up 20 or 30 retailers this year,” Dennis said. “Right now is the time to go out and sell to these people, who are placing orders for next year.”
Tucker was set to make a short presentation at the Central Michigan University Research Corporation on Jan. 15, prompting a quick trip to Mount Pleasant the week before to take a quick tour and run-through. It is a common practice for Tucker and Dennis, who says it helps his son feel comfortable in a new setting and prevents any anxiety.
Inside the conference room where his presentation was to take place, Tucker watches his father take a video on his iPhone to revisit the space virtually and listens to account manager Bob Moyer fill in details about what will happen Jan. 15 and what the corporation can offer Tuck’s Tooques.
Dennis is interested in pursuing the corporation for its office space and business incubator services, but it’s not long before Tucker wants to be back on the road again and waves good-bye to Moyer.
Erin Strang, president and CEO of the CMU Research Corp., said the business incubator provides new entrepreneurs the opportunity to talk about their business and receive input. She hears ideas from a “variety of different backgrounds, and a variety of different skill sets.”
“We’re excited to hear more about it when it comes in,” Strang said about the presentation for Tuck’s Tooques.
The trip to Mount Pleasant is just one of the options Dennis is pursuing to expand upon the initial success of Tuck’s Tooques. It has also put him in the position as an adviser for families with autistic children, something that Lampman said is appropriate since Dennis has been involved in these types of issues for years.
She has known Tucker and his father for a number of years, and is familiar with the business Dennis started to guide his son into independence. The Arc itself supports at least six businesses that are run by people with disabilities, and Lampman said she sees this type of social phenomenon continuing.
That’s why she is encouraged by word of new federal regulations that would correct wage discrepancies and equal integrated work spaces within the community, instead of sheltered workshops that prevent disabled individuals from working in the community. Organizations like the Arc would need to rebuild some of their programs, a strategy already being addressed in places like Vermont, where Lampman said integrated employment for disabled people is being embraced.
More and more people with disabilities are saying all along they felt like they belong in the community, Lampman said, and these new regulations would encourage and promote that integration. It is a far cry from Lampman’s earlier experience with the segregation of disabled individuals and a promising sign of social change.
“Any great social change doesn’t start with big institutions, it starts with a person with gifts and ideas who is able to mobilize people and who can then mobilize other people and it grows from the ground,” Lampman said. “Then and only then do systems begin to change.”
As for Tuck’s Tooques, the money previously used to provide him with a caregiver could go directly to employing someone to help with certain aspects of the business and take some of the responsibility off his father’s shoulders.
“The truth is, he just needs a little bit of support if the dollars tied to him going to a sheltered workshop could just go with him to his business, it could provide him the sort of support he needs,” Lampman said. “It’s about leveling the playing fields for all sorts of entrepreneurs.”
Leveling the playing field is familiar for Dennis and Tucker, who struggled for years in the public education system. Tucker is now enrolled in the Great Lakes Cyber Academy, and loving the emphasized use of technology and virtual classrooms.
“He’s just worlds better and it allows him to function in a variety of ways he couldn’t function before,” Dennis said.
Tucker is not alone: According to his principal Heather Ballien, about 10 percent of the academy’s special education population lists their primary disability as autism. They benefit from aspects of the cyber academy, like flexible semester schedules and classes that offer few distractions and focused instructors.
When first meeting Tucker about a year ago, Ballien thought he was “quite an extraordinary young man” and has been pleased how the cyber academy has worked for him and enabled his educational achievements.
“We say online education doesn’t work for everyone, but when it does work, it works very well,” Ballien said. “Students like Tucker are our future also, and we want to make sure we providing the best educational experience and inclusive opportunities.”
One of those opportunities was a bowling excursion, where she saw firsthand how Dennis modeled interacting with Tucker for the other students.
“Anytime we can educate anyone, adults, students alike, I think it is a positive experience. Dennis has provided that for my staff and the students,” Ballien said.
The satisfaction Dennis and Tucker have received through the cyber academy is being experienced by others. The academy has grown exponentially, said Ballien, from 109 students in 2013 to 730 at her last count in December 2015.
It is also opening the doors to seeking higher education for Tucker, who would like to attend Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, one of his favorite places in the world.
“It really comes down to the environment,” Dennis said about Tucker’s choice of college, which his son talks about frequently. “He is adamant about that,”
Tucker and his dad usually take a drive every day, to get out of the house and be a part of the outdoors, along with the ubiquitous tooques atop their heads.
“We both have wicked wanderlust,” Dennis said about the common bond between Tucker and himself.
The father and son have been discussing their comparable dreams, which seem to pile up as the business grows and more people learn about Tuck’s Tooques. Tucker would like to be a park ranger with the National Parks Service one day, something his dad would also enjoy. There is also a chance of selling tooques in more states through a vendor agreement.
Dennis jokes the duo will one day travel across the country to do speaking tours and reaching out to more retailers, but says he also has visions of starting a nonprofit to help parents like himself who are at a dead-end on how to best raise their autistic child.
No matter the journey they take, Dennis is set on finding the right route that will let Tucker be in the environments that suit him best. There is somewhat of a deadline in the form of Tucker’s 18th birthday on Nov. 2, when he reaches the “service cliff.” It is what Dennis calls the abrupt drop in services his son will receive for his well-being and business venture.
“We need a steady path forward,” Dennis said, as he watched Tucker walk down the Rail trail with an iPod in hand, blaring music like a typical teenager.
Like the journey the father and son have been on for years, it is a path Dennis plans to take together.
“Nothing I’ve done has been as rewarding as working on this little company and working with him on his academics,” Dennis said. “It isn’t traditional or accepted by many, but that’s part of the evolution I’ve gone through.”