Pat Miller and Pam Kattouf, longtime friends who both have adult sons with autism, used to commiserate about how tough it was for their kids to find employment opportunities. It’s hard, the moms said, for young adults with autism to find a steady job.
Miller and Kattouf, who met on the playground when their boys were toddlers, decided to do something about it.
In 2016, the pair launched Beloved Bath. It’s an online retailer headquartered in Maplewood, that sells candles, bath salts, body butters and similar products. The company said it usually employs eight to 10 people across the spectrum. Their sons, John and Justin, were some of the company’s first employees.
“What inspired us to go into business, is the fact that the landscape of employment for people with autism and other disabilities is very, very bleak,” said Kattouf “Our employees, they’re learning some pivotal skills that they can take to other job sites, you know, packaging, boxing, mixing, making.”
Plus, the moms said, the sensory aspects of the job — touching the bath salts, smelling fragrances, working with vivid colors — make it a great fit for autistic employees. And, it provides a steady routine, something many people with autism prefer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed operations a bit. Shifts are more spread out to allow for distancing requirements. For now, only one to two employees are working in their studio (located in Kattouf’s basement) at a time, the company said. But, the company’s ability to adapt has kept it going.
This year, the company celebrates its fifth anniversary. And research suggests it’s filling a big void.
According to an A.J. Drexel Autism Institute report, four out of 10 young adults with autism never work for pay from the time they graduate high school into their early 20s. They have a harder time finding jobs than their peers with other disabilities, the report said.
Beloved Bath is a for-profit company. The owners said the decision was intentional.
“We very purposefully decided not to be a 501(c)3, to be an LLC, because we wanted to show businesses that they could hire people with disabilities, and that people with disabilities could contribute and help make other companies great companies,” Kattouf said. “It didn’t just have to be a charitable endeavor.”
In addition to providing employment opportunities for people with autism, Beloved Bath offers vocational training at local special education institutions, where students with autism often attend until age 21.
“The best part about having them be trained when they’re under 21 Is that when they do graduate from the school, at age 21, they will be primed and ready to become our employees,” Miller said.
Matty Ribaudo, one of the company’s employees, said he loves that he gets to work with some of his friends. His mother, Beth Ribaudo, told NJ Advance Media she is grateful her son has the opportunity to work.
“(Pam and Pat) are amazing people,” Beth Ribaudo said. “They’ve given back so much and what Matty gets out of it is a win-win. He feels so self-confident after he’s done working for the day. He just feels so good.”
In addition to their work with Beloved Bath, Miller and Katouff helped open Garden Academy in the early 2000s. It’s a school in West Orange designed for students with autism. Miller sits on the Board of Directors.
The duo also hosts a podcast called “Making Scents Out of Autism,” highlighting their company and their experiences as parents.
“Our podcast has become a real source of comfort for families with autism. It’s not even so much about trying to sell our products, it’s really about helping families through the different stages,” Miller said, pointing out that childhood, adolescence and adulthood all provide unique challenges.
Nearly 1 in 54 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the CDC. In 2000, 1 in 150 children were said to be on the spectrum.
Friday is World Autism Awareness Day. The entire month of April is also dedicated to autism awareness.
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Tennyson Donyèa may be reached at [email protected].