Hayden Mears’ time is up in the glass-walled conference room he has booked for an hour in the frenzied hub of entrepreneurial activity that is South Lake Union’s WeWork building. The 23-year-old, dressed in a black polo shirt and jeans, vacates the room with an affable air. “Have a good one, dude,” he tells the guy who’s next in line.
He looks at ease as he resettles himself in an alcove of the the co-working space, and later as he walks the hallways, which offer a jumble of sights and sounds. A ping-pong game is in progress in a common room. Red lights, acting as do-not-disturb signs, glow above little solitary work booths. Larger fishbowl offices reveal clusters of people talking and staring and screens. Even the walls stimulate the senses with brightly colored pattens.
“There was a time,” Mears says, “that this would have been traumatizing to me.” That was when this young entrepreneur, diagnosed as a child with the mild form of autism commonly known as Asperger’s Syndrome, says he had acute difficulty in dealing with sensory stimulation. He acted out—hurling toys and himself into dangerous places—and had other problems as well. Like many with Asperger’s, he had trouble picking up on social cues and wrestled with sometimes profound anxiety.
When he was 3, a neurologist told his parents that their child would never have a normal relationship with them, would need to spend his school years in a special-education classroom, and might eventually have to be institutionalized, his mother, Kim Pahukoa, recalls.
The neurologist couldn’t have been more wrong. Today, Mears and another young man with Asperger’s, 24-year-old Danny Raede, run a business that they say has earned over a million dollars in revenue in its two and a half years of operation. Called Asperger Experts, it offers coaching to parents of children like them. Their motto: “Take it from us. We’ve LIVED it!”
Their main product line is a series of webinars and DVDs, but they also offer a five-hour package of phone coaching for $1,300, a six-month service that runs $10,000, and occasional in-person seminars.
Mears, who grew up in Oklahoma, and Raede, a California native, met at a Denver community-college program geared for people with learning disabilities. Both still struggled with issues related to Asperger’s, but were making impressive strides. Mears, who was studying journalism, had started writing film reviews for a couple of online publications. Raede, who spent much of his childhood holed up in his room playing video games, but who had found confidence and inspiration through the works of self-help financial gurus like Tony Robbins, was already showing entrepreneurial moxie. Setting himself up as a web consultant, he sent out what he estimates were 500 e-mails to small businesses. “Hey, I’ve noticed your website could be improved. I can help,” he wrote. He scored a few clients, outsourced the work, and made a modest profit.
Asperger Experts was Raede’s idea. Speaking by phone one day last week, he explains that he saw the opportunity to make money and “do something good” at the same time. In Mears, he saw someone who could bring an emotional dimension to the business. And so the two, barely out of their teens, formed a partnership. Eventually, on something of a whim, they relocated to Seattle.
Now heading a staff of five, including themselves, Mears and Raede preach an approach that is relatively simple. It centers on something that they call “defense mode.” This, Raede explains in one of a series of free introductory videos on aspergerexperts.com, is “when you get very locked down and go very numb.” The cause, he and Mears say, is sensory overload—an acute sensitivity to sights, smells, and sounds among those with Asperger’s. They react by going into their own world. Hence the social problems that those with Asperger’s are known for.
Raede and Mears urge parents to concentrate on getting their kids out of defense mode by creating a “safe place” where kids can decompress. If their children start screaming and flailing when they go to the grocery store, get them out of there as soon as possible, they suggest. Better yet, if this is a recurring problem, don’t take them to the grocery store in the first place.
Lots of positive reinforcement—“positive driven statements” in the company lingo—also helps to create a safe place, they say. “You’d be surprised how many parents of people with Asperger’s don’t know how to deal with their kids and just lash out,” Mears says, talking at the WeWork building, where Asperger Experts maintains two small offices, one filled with video equipment. He says a turning point for him came in high school, when his mom stopped getting angry and began engaging him with “frequent, personal, positive, and low-risk interactions.”
This approach resonates with parents, Mears says. “We sell ourselves as people who provide solutions you can implement today. You don’t have to go to a therapy appointment or break an arm [to achieve results].”
Annette Estes, director
of the University of Washington’s Autism Center, which both offers clinical services and conducts research studies, had not heard of Asperger Experts before talking with Seattle Weekly. (After a brief review of its website last week, she said it looked “great.”) She stresses the need for a variety of options when it comes to helping people with autism spectrum disorders (Officially, professionals in the field no longer use the term Asperger’s; patients are now assigned a severity level along an autism spectrum.) Estes cites a saying in the field: “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism.”
“But,” she adds, “it’s really important to think about evidence-based interventions.” Her center has been studying treatment outcomes for ten years, and what it has found to be most successful is intensive behavioral therapy, including work on social skills. “At 20 hours a week for two years, we found we could make significant changes.” A soon to be published study by the center, one of only two-long terms studies in the field ever done, shows that two children who began such therapy as toddlers were by age 6 “indistinguishable from their peers.”
Mears’ own evolution also suggests that dealing with Asperger’s can require a multitude of strategies. Like her son, Pahukoa, a speech therapist, remembers an attitude change on her part when Mears was in high school (although she describes the process as learning how to “lovingly disengage” from her son’s emotional “roller-coaster” ride and calmly guide his behavior. “Yes, I know you have Asperger’s,” she would say. “But you have choices.” )
But just as important to Mears’ development, in Pahukoa’s telling, was the moment when things reached a crisis point—Mears was getting aggressive with family members and suffering from depression—and she decided to do something “drastic.” She sent her son, then a high-school sophomore, to a locked treatment facility in Austin for a month. “It was awful,” she says, but also “incredibly powerful.” Through brain testing, the facility was able to better determine what medication he needed. And he received intensive behavioral therapy that led to him “deciding to make changes,” according to Pahukoa.
Looking at the approach promoted by Asperger Experts, she recognizes that it’s but one part of what worked for her son. Yet she feels his and Raede’s take on their experiences are valuable for parents to hear.
Even more valuable may be their function as role models. Mears says he and Raede still struggle with aspects of Asperger’s. For Mears, social anxiety persists. “I’m worried about how I come off to other people,” he says. “Even during this interview, I’m stumbling over words a lot.” (Actually, only a little.) They are nonetheless successful entrepreneurs who make their living by communicating with people.
Asperger Experts’ office manager is Heather Patterson, whose 10-year-old son has been diagnosed with the disorder. Some days, Mears and Raede will go with her to pick up her son from school. For him, she says, these two young entrepreneurs are “total rock stars.”