An Autism Diagnosis At 24 Led Joe Carr To Build A Company That's Changing The Way Special-Needs Children Eat
Because autism doesn’t disappear when children turn 18, this interview series explores what it’s like to navigate a career as a young adult on the autism spectrum.
By PJ Feinstein
Joe Carr was the kind of kid who earned straight As but hated going to school. Incredibly bright, he was often bored in class. “Teachers would often call on me for answers to embarrass me, assuming I wasn’t paying attention, and then I’d know the answer,” he remembers.
His teachers would also repeatedly tell Joe, who had “larger-than-life energy,” to stop talking, sit still, or follow instructions. “I struggled with authority figures and anyone trying to have any mode of control over the environment, as I was uncontrollable,” he says, “I remember constantly being in trouble and sitting by myself on the bench at recess, with no clear understanding of what I did wrong or how not to do it again.”
What nobody realized at the time was that Joe was autistic. “I had seen therapists throughout my whole childhood and was inaccurately diagnosed with ADHD, but mostly I was just called ‘obnoxious,’” says Joe. In fact, he wasn’t properly diagnosed until starting seeing a therapist specializing in men’s issues when he was 24.
Having autism also made it hard for Joe to make friends...until a chance interaction with one of the popular girls in middle school. Instead of being mean to Joe for annoying her, she surprised him by announcing that she and her friends were going to teach him how to be cool. Joe’s response? “Without hesitation, I said ‘I’ll do whatever you say!’ They basically taught me social skills like how to be a good friend, how to keep secrets, how to dress, etc,” he says.
It was that experience that taught Joe “the most important lesson of my life: that I could take feedback and change myself for the better,” he says. “This set me on a personal growth track, determined to be the best person I could be. I wanted to constantly grow and change.”
In high school, Joe discovered that he could not only change himself but also the world. Today he is the co-founder and president of Serenity Kids, a line of healthy single-food pouches. Although they’re designed for infants, the pouches are also great for kids with food sensitivities or texture issues, explains Joe, which is why Serenity Kids is Autism Hope Alliance-certified.
Here, Joe, 37, talks to us about growing up with undiagnosed autism and why he launched his own children’s food company.
Let’s talk about your childhood. How did your parents help you navigate your special needs? What do you wish they would’ve done differently?
My mom tried really hard to find an outlet for me. Sports were terrible. Boy Scouts were terrible. Helping me discover the performing arts was the best thing she ever did for me. I was super talented at anything on a stage: acting, singing, dancing, etc. So she dedicated a good portion of her time to carting me around to auditions, rehearsals, and performances. She really encouraged me to build that gift. That’s what saved me! I was miserable in school, but I’d look forward to rehearsal or dance class, and I quickly became one of the top kid actors in the Kansas City professional theater, TV, and commercials circuit.
My dad, however, did not quite understand how hard it was for me. He was super loving and tried really hard to be engaged in my life, but it was hard for him because I wasn’t into sports, engineering, or mechanics like he was. I wish that he would’ve tried to get involved in my interests like dancing and singing and Broadway musicals.
What my mom could’ve done differently was be more assertive. She was too permissive. She let me get away with a lot, including being mean, even cruel, to her. She understood that I was taking my pain from the day out on her, but there was a place where her compassion crossed the line, and she should have set more personal boundaries.
I also think what they could have done differently was to be on the same page. Their conflicting viewpoints on how I was doing, or how to best deal with me, created further confusion. When I was in middle school, they took some parenting classes and united on their strategy, and things got a lot better for all of us.
As an autistic adult, what advice would you give to parents raising children with autism?
First and foremost, we need to accept that autism is not a disability or anything bad. There are amazing superpowers that come with it. And while there are also unique challenges, the additional skills balance them out. We need to get rid of this victim mentality and the idea that it’s a curse or disease. If a kid hears you say something like, “autism ruined my life,” they really hear, “I ruined your life.”
And yes, we should approach them as they’re different but also reinforce that there are others who are different like them. Just because they’re different, doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We should acknowledge that autism is hard while also emphasizing the special talents that come with it. Talking about autism a lot is important so there’s no hidden shame and kids can learn to self-advocate. It’s much easier to be an advocate for yourself when your parents model it.
What was your dream job as a kid?
As a kid, I had like 20 different dream jobs. I would say I wanted to be an engineer like my dad, but I didn’t really know what that was. I wanted to be in the Army, a police officer, a pilot, or really anything with a cool uniform. I also wanted to be a performer like a movie star or rock star. I really loved wearing costumes and wanted to wear them everywhere. Since school wouldn’t let me, I would dress up in costumes I had created anywhere we would go after school or on weekends. So I really liked the idea of a career where I got to wear outfits that were different.
By high school, my new dream was to be a theater teacher because I was so passionate about it. I also didn’t like our theater teacher and wanted to do it better.
How did you choose your career path?
Because of my tough childhood and awful time with the school system, I decided I wanted to change the world for kids and began a career in youth services. I moved to Austin, worked in a variety of youth nonprofits, and eventually founded my own – an afterschool and summer program where all kids, including special needs kids, were welcome. It was the program I wished I had as a kid.
However, it failed after two-and-a-half years because of my lack of leadership and money-management skills (things my autism makes more challenging). I began working for a personal growth startup and learned everything I could about sales, money management, team-building, and other fundamentals of running a business.
After I met my wife, Serenity, the 90-hour work weeks at the startup weren’t sustainable if I wanted to be a dad (something I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember). So I quit, not knowing what was next, but I had faith I would find the right thing. I read Tim Ferris’s Four Hour Work Week and set off on a path to create a product that could make a bigger impact on the world than just a service, while also making enough money to support a family.
Around that time in 2016, Serenity and I were discovering the immense, life-changing health benefits of adopting a Paleo diet. In fact, once I started eating Paleo, I was able to better manage many symptoms associated with autism.
When we discovered there wasn’t any paleo baby food, Serenity poured over research on infant nutrition. She learned that babies really need good meats and healthy fats, but everything in the baby food aisle was packed with fruit sugars with almost no meat or fat. So we set off to create a different kind of baby food made from pasture-raised meats, organic vegetables, and healthy fats.
Two-and-a-half years later Serenity Kids Baby Food came to life. Our products launched online the same day our daughter, Della, was born. That was something we could never (and would never) have planned but was clear evidence of divine synchronicity at work.
Did you have a mentor?
I have many mentors who have been instrumental in my success. It started with that girl in middle school and continues to this day. I have a business and investment mentor, my wife and I have a relationship coach and mentor, and I also have a spiritual mentor. We have several mentors within the food industry, including the founders of EPIC Provisions, Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest, who helped shape the way we look at ethical sourcing and regenerative agriculture.
Why is being the owner of Serenity Kids a good fit for you?
I get to work with my wife! I also have the opportunity to use all my different skills around team building, selling, performing, and storytelling to grow the company, and I get to be my own boss. I have the freedom to make my own hours, take plenty of breaks, change up my work environment, and have plenty of time for my baby, Della.
Plus, I get to make a positive impact on children by helping to change the way they eat, starting with that first bite of solid food. And I have a platform to educate other parents about how to encourage freedom and responsibility for kids, whether special needs or not.