How 1 Autistic Young Man Runs a Business

Poppin' Joe's Kettle Korn shows how special-needs children can fare as adults.

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Joe Steffy (R) and a family friend.
Joe Steffy (R) and a family friend.

Joe Steffy is off to Overland Park, Kan., this week to do a PowerPoint presentation on his business, Poppin' Joe's Kettle Korn. He's a 23-year-old small-business man with a goal of $100,000 in sales by 2012. Joe also has autism and Down syndrome and is nonverbal. When he gives his talk, he will push buttons on an augmentative speech device to deliver the words. His audience will be parents who fervently hope their own special-needs children will be able to work, too.

Joe's parents, Ray and Janet, of Louisburg, Kan., didn't agree with the assessment of the school district in which they lived previously, which had said Joe would never be able to work or live independently. "I'm one who can easily get ticked off," says Ray. "That ticked me off. We saw more in Joe than that. We set out to prove to the school that he had capabilities." They came across kettle corn while on a trip to Alaska and realized that all that popping, scooping, and serving suited Joe's love of work.

The path to Joe Steffy's success was not an easy one; Ray Steffy worked closely with Dave Hammis, an advocate for self-employment for people with disabilities in Middletown, Ohio, who trains business owners, government employees, and parents on how to make use of state and federal programs. The Steffys wrote up a business plan and helped Joe secure $25,000 in grants from programs like Social Security Administration's Plan to Achieve Self-Support program (PASS).

In 2005, Poppin' Joe's Kettle Korn was born. Sales have grown from $16,000 in 2005 to $50,000 in 2008, both from selling at festivals and from delivering popcorn to local outlets. Joe has five part-time employees, and his parents help out with driving and other tasks. "Pop and everyone that works with him knows whatever Joe wants to do you let him do, because he's the boss," Ray says. "If he wants to pop, he'll shove Dad out of the way and pop."

If the business stays on track, it should be grossing more than $100,000 in three years, and the Steffys are seeking a business partner who can work with Joe to manage the business. Joe is no longer on Social Security disability payments; instead, he pays state sales tax and state and federal income tax. He rents his own house and is helped by caregivers who are paid by a state program.

"It's been hard work, from the standpoint of physical work," says Ray Steffy, who is 67. "But a parent with a child like Joe has a choice. You can either kick in and do this kind of thing, or you can sit and fret emotionally with the amount of energy, worrying about what's going to happen to them."

The payoff for that effort, as far as the Steffys are concerned, has been priceless. They see their son make a local popcorn delivery, accept payment, fold it, and put it in his pocket. When he walks out, his dad says, Joe looks 3 inches taller than when he walked in.

Corrected on : Corrected on 04/06/09: An earlier version of this article misidentified the high school Joe Steffy attended. The photo caption also misidentified the woman with Joe. She is a family friend.