Dennis Mashue was as busy as ever when I chatted with him on the phone one recent afternoon. He was tired.
“We had a presentation at Central Michigan University yesterday, so we’re moving slow this morning,” he said.
Dennis has a good working relationship with the university based on his unique winter-hat selling business, Tuck’s Tooques. It’s not what Tuck’s Tooques sells, though, that makes it noteworthy; it’s the company’s business model, something several universities have found fascinating.
Founded to give Dennis’ non-verbal, autistic son, Tucker, life skills he wasn’t being taught at his local Michigan public school, Tuck’s Tooques helps those with autism to become self-sufficient through building their business acumen.
During an interview a year ago, Dennis told Think Freely Media’s Everyday Heroes Project the story of his difficult journey to educate Tucker. Horrified that the public school system intended to put his son into a center where he would remain academically unchallenged until he was phased out of high school, the determined father began looking for other educational options. Specifically, he looked for a school with leaders who understood autism, something administrators in the traditional public schools in their area didn’t seem to understand — or care to understand.
Fortunately, Dennis came across Great Lakes Cyber Academy, a tuition-free online charter school. The teachers there not only understood what Tucker was capable of, they challenged him. They also shared with Dennis that Tucker had longer to graduate because of his autism, information the traditional public school hadn’t offered.
Even better, Dennis could focus his attention on helping Tucker gain job skills through selling woolen winter hats made by women supporting their families in Nepal. Each day, the Mashues worked to build a business that could support Tucker when he was older, if he so chose.
When Everyday Heroes last spoke to Dennis, he and Tucker were planning a cross country trip during which they would speak at different colleges and venues about using microbusinesses to provide job training to people with autism. Since they’re outdoor guys, the plan was to stay at national parks across the nation and tell their stories there.
“It was a fantastic adventure, but we’re ready to be settled down at last,” Dennis said of the time away.
The Mashues began their trek in the summer of 2016 with a tight budget, but an abundance of enthusiasm and excitement.
“We set out in a 2002 Ford Windstar minivan,” Dennis said with a laugh. “It had 225,000 miles on it when we started out and was packed so full that it had no suspension when it expired.”
But the trip entailed more of a risk than just that old minivan.
“We went out with zero money in our savings account, zero safety net. A couple of times that last money went to buy food and get into the camp ground. Then, a couple of times we didn’t have enough money to pay for the camp sites,” he said. “We would get into the camp ground, I would go out walking around, stop and have a beer with people and tell them about our adventure. People took interest and eventually asked the golden question, ‘Do you have any of these hats with you?’”
Once they ran out of their starting fund, it was selling Tuck’s Tooques and their story that kept the Mashues venturing across the country. The spoke at colleges, libraries, shops and pretty much anywhere that would have them. According to Dennis, they spoke with more than 1,000 people over the summer.
One of the aspects of their story that ended up being even more valuable to the tour was Dennis’ discovery that he himself was on the autism spectrum. It made him understand why he always felt on the outside of society, looking in.
“A lot of people have said there’s value in us going out there and saying, ‘Tucker and I are a couple of autistic guys that are putting a company together and touring the country.’ A lot of people are inspired by that,” Dennis said.
“The side of autism that we’re showing them is a lot different from what they’re getting in lecture halls and textbooks,” he added.
And what they’re doing is gaining attention. Dennis said that despite being on the road and putting very little time into their business last summer, they doubled their sales in 2016. In addition to selling their hats online, they’ve placed them in stores in Washington, Idaho, Minnesota, Michigan, North Carolina and Georgia.
Tucker also is excelling at his online charter school. “He’s been there for two years now and just scored academically as the average 12th grader,” Dennis said proudly.
Considering that Tucker was consistently assessed in the traditional public schools with a reading comprehension level of a second- or third-grader, this news is even more exciting. “I knew that was absolutely untrue, but the district refused to use another test,” the father reflected.
However, once they found a comprehension test that worked for Tucker, Great Lakes Cyber Academy proved to Dennis what he already knew: that his son was smart and could comprehend information — he just couldn’t’ communicate it.
So, what’s next for this dynamic duo?
The Mashues are determined to focus on their business. A senior level marketing course at Central Michigan University has “adopted” them to help them build their business. And they’re developing a new logo, marketing plan and business strategy.
They’re also interested in doing all they can to replicate their business model to help other autistic adults gain job skills needed to be independent. The Mashues are even in conversation with an autistic community in Nepal to help package and send out the hats the Nepalese women make.