Dennis Mashue spent 12 years fighting for a decent education for his autistic son, Tucker. Knowing autism wasn’t well understood at the time, Dennis researched innovative ways for his teachers to educate Tucker, but his suggestions were met with resistance each time. He couldn’t understand why they seemed so intent on keeping his son from integrating with the other students, challenging him academically or even teaching him basic job skills. After it became obvious the system intended to babysit rather than educate his son, Dennis chose to find an alternative school and, eventually, start a business to teach the job skills the public school system would not. Little did he realize his determination to see his son thrive would open doors to help other forgotten members of the autistic community, too.
Tucker’s battle with the school system started shortly after he entered kindergarten when a parent petitioned the school to remove him from the classroom, saying he was disrupting other students. Dennis believed this frustration arose from a general misunderstanding of autism and researched ways of educating both the other students and their parents. Based on a successful program he’d found, Dennis offered to throw a pizza party and host games at the school during recess once a week so kids could have time to play with Tucker one-on-one and understand how to communicate with him. Despite support from other parents, the principal refused. Dennis had to appeal to the head of the school board before the principal relented.
The simple program was an incredible success. Not only did Tucker have an extensive community of friends, but he also flourished academically. Other disabled students too benefitted from the program as they joined the school over the years. And yet, when he initially proposed the idea, school officials looked at him like he was requesting the moon. Surely its would get easier as the years wore on and awareness rose, right? Sadly, it became worse and worse.
When Tucker was ready for middle school, Dennis asked officials at the new school if he could start a similar program to help his son transition. They refused, literally telling the Mashues they’d have to sue the district to change the policy. Not wanting the legal hassle, the family decided to make the most of the year. Tucker’s social circle dissolved, his anxiety rose, and he started having issues academically.
If the middle school wouldn’t allow Tucker to have the program, Dennis resolved to start one privately. That summer, he contacted the Chippewa Nature Center to set up a similar program to their previous endeavor, only this time, the center would pair at-risk children with autistic ones. Together, the children would spend a week learning, exploring nature and getting to understand each other. The program was so beneficial for both sets of students that the center continued and expanded it. It’s now been running for six years and has received a national award for innovation in nature-based education.
As Tucker moved into his teen years, Dennis pushed the school to teach his son job-skills. He was horrified when the school reported they only offer these lesson for autistic students once they reach their senior years of high school. Around 90 percent of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed, and Dennis didn’t want his son falling into that category. Once more, he took the initiative in his own hands and contacted the nature center. Dennis and the director created a program where, once a week, Tucker would visit the center, learn administrative skills, manage the reserve’s library and work with the park’s maintenance team to clean the grounds. Tucker was growing independent and his confidence blossomed.
But when Tucker transitioned to high school, the school’s administration refused to let Tucker leave school to participate in the private program, despite it’s obvious success. Tucker moved schools, hoping to find more opportunity, but only found more disappointment. His anxiety levels spiked, he was downcast and had difficulties in school. One day he confessed to his father why he was having such a hard time: his teachers treated him like he was dumb.
Family friends saw how frustrated the Mashues were with the system and how it was stifling Tucker. One friend suggested they start a small business, selling winter hats woven by a cooperative of mothers in Nepal who weave to make extra money for their families. This way, Tucker could develop job skills and even set up a career if he chooses. They bought a box of woolen winter hats, which Canadians call “toques” (toox), and began selling them casually. Meanwhile, Dennis still held some hope he could get the district to change their minds.
Then the worst happened: school officials announced that instead of putting more effort into Tucker’s education, they were going to remove him from regular 10th-grade classes and bus him to a “center based program” where the district sent other mentally challenged students. Dennis toured the school and saw the students weren’t challenged academically, but given the same worksheets they’d done in previous years. He also talked with a teacher, a family friend that knew Tucker, who confirmed to him it would be a horrible choice for his son. Tucker would wither until he was ultimately phased out of school.
But even if Tucker were going this center, would he, at least, be taught job skills? No. The county’s autism expert told Dennis something that demonstrated how ignorant system officials were about autism: “Until he can function socially, Tucker’s never going to be able to get a job.” To be autistic is to have issues with communication, not to be unable to study. For some reason, officials didn’t understand that the disability affected Tucker’s ability to communicate, not his ability to think. There were brilliant autistic people around the world who were articulate, smart and lived happy and independent lives. Dennis knew Tucker could lead a full, happy and independent life if his teachers were capable and willing to help. Saying that Tucker couldn’t learn job skills until he could learn social skills would be the equivalent of putting Tucker in a cage he could never escape. Dennis took Tucker out of school that very day.
Dennis decided that instead of fighting school administrators, he’d search for another option outside of the traditional school structure. With no suitable private schools in the area, Dennis looked online and found Great Lakes Cyber Academy, a recently launched, tuition-free charter school from Central Michigan University. Not only did he find an amazing team of educators who wanted to help find the best ways to teach Tucker, they told Dennis something he didn’t know: under Michigan law, Tucker was eligible for educational services until he was 26. Tucker could take his time and master the programs before moving on to new levels. But why had he never heard of this before? Dennis says he believes it’s because it’s easier for school districts to graduate autistic students rather than educating them.
These days, 17-year-old Tucker spends a couple of hours studying and then works with his dad on their business, Tuck’s Tooques. Dennis openly states that he does most of the work in the business right now, but the goal is for Tucker to own and run the operation if he wants one day. He says Tucker is learning the ins-and-outs of running a business through osmosis, fulfilling shipments, learning photography and helping build a database of product information just like any other teen.
The family has bigger plans for their business, too. Dennis hopes that Tuck’s Tooques can eventually employ other autistic teens. They’re also working toward supporting an autism care society in Nepal to teach local autistic teens and adults the skills to how to work with the cooperative that makes the toques the business sells.
Thanks to its novel mission, Tuck’s Tooques is attracting a lot of attention. Out of an original pool of 80 companies, it is one of six companies recently accepted to Central Michigan University Research Corporation’s Small Business Entrepreneurship Program, which is essentially a shark tank type program that gives legal advice, marketing assistance, graphic design support and helps with investor relations to promising small businesses. The father-son duo has also been invited by two large corporations in Washington, D.C. this month to present their business model. In the field, explorer Lonnie Dupre wears the hats on his expeditions to give the business exposure. But perhaps most inspiring, Dennis also says some educators are pushing for this model to become a pilot program for a new education initiative in Michigan.
Their next goal is to take their story on the road. Right now they’re planning a three to six month trip around the U.S. to promote their business and share their remarkable concept of pairing micro businesses with online schooling as an alternative for autistic education. They hope to encourage other autistic families that they have options outside current school models. They’re currently fundraising to rent a camper to drive from place to place. If you’d like to support Dennis and Tucker’s educational trip, you can donate to their gofundme.
Make sure to check out Tuck’s Tooques website and see the fantastic hats that hope to inspire cultural change.