Café helps people with autism put puzzle pieces together

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- The symbol of autism awareness is a puzzle piece. But at Puzzles Bakery and Café, it goes far beyond just a symbol.

The employees there will tell you it is more than just a cupcake shop. Andra Moore is a cafe attendant, where more than half of the staff has autism.

"You get a sense that people really care about you, and they take the time to get to know you and don't just see you as 'less than,'" Moore told CBS News.

It's the idea of owner Sara Mae Hickey, a 25-year-old local who saw the need for employment opportunities for young adults with autism.

"What I started to realize was when people talk about autism, they talk about it as a childhood disability," Hickey said.

Hickey has known autism her whole life. Her younger sister, Emily, is on the lower-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Sara Mae Hickey, 25, started Puzzles Bakery and Café in Schenectady, New York, to provide employment opportunities for young adults with autism. CBS News

"A lot of us are exposed in our everyday lives, but it's really great to put a face on that and to know that the person bringing you lunch may or may not have special needs and that's just normal," she said.

The cafe offers pet therapy and other programs for those it can't employ. Since Puzzles opened, Hickey has received about 600 applications. But the cafe can only employ 25.

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"In a way, it's like, wow, that's amazing, I'm blown away, but in a way it's tragic," Hickey said. "Because there's so many people who just want to have a job."

Maddy Hannon was one of the first applicants. Her father, Don, said the experience has changed his daughter.

"I say it's like hitting the lottery," Don Hannon said. "She's opened up, she's willing to engage in conversation. Before, she wouldn't even look at you in the eye. To anyone, it was difficult."

The Puzzles family hopes they can help change the perception of autism.

"I'm an ambassador for people with autism, who really just need someone to show that we're not 'Rain Man,' and we're not psycho killers, that we're good people, and we can make jokes, and we can be relatable," Moore said.

And they're asking for help.

"Even if you just hire one person with autism, I think that'll make a huge impact," Hickey said.

For their part, Hickey and her team are putting this puzzle together, piece by piece.

  • Jim Axelrod
    Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the chief investigative correspondent and senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.