FIFTEEN-year-old Sean O’Mahony, who was diagnosed with autism when he was five years old, has struggled with anxiety for most of his life. However, after discovering a love for baking over lockdown, Sean has also found a new confidence as his baking business gained national attention.
After coming out of school and returning to working with a tutor from home, Sean discovered a new-found passion and the start of his journey to creating his own businesses, The Autistic Baker, began.
Speaking to The Echo, Sean’s mother, Karen O’Mahony, founder of the Rainbow Club Cork Centre for Autism, said school had been causing him “a massive amount of anxiety”.
“So unfortunately, he came out of school again last September and he started with home tutor and the work that they were doing was around history, maths and all of that kind of stuff and then the therapeutic side of it would have went towards the baking,” she said.
“He really found a love for the baking... It gave him a lot of different sensory diet but also sensory input which was helping him a lot then to sort of navigate through, I suppose, being out of school and trying to figure out where he is in the world.
“I suppose he’ll still be a while trying to figure it all out but he’s much further along now than he was before.”
Karen said the baking has given Sean a noticeable confidence boost.
“That’s the biggest thing for him and it has given him a social outlet which is something that he obviously had gone without because of being out of school.”
It all began within the café at the Rainbow Club, where Sean had his lessons with his tutor over lockdown while it remained closed to the public.
According to Sean’s sister Molly, who is also the café manager, he was initially doing some cooking and baking though he took a shining to bread in particular.
“He said to me: ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could sell this in the café?’ It was a bit of a shock to all of us that he kind of took initiative and was interested in something. It’s not usually like him to do that but it was great to see him take an interest,” Molly added.
While the same can’t be said for us all, lockdown wasn’t all too bad for Sean.
According to Molly, he “loved” it.
“It was the best situation for him because all of the triggers like going outside, going to school – all of the things that were making him anxious were taken away.”
After setting up a business and becoming the in-house baker for the Café in the club, The Autistic Baker began to get a lot of attention and his bread was selling out at the café.
The business even made an appearance on national news where Sean conducted an interview.
Karen described it as a “complete and utter shock to us all”.
“He did his own interview, so we were shocked,” she said.
“It was fantastic to see him in such a great positive light as well, speaking so positively and confidently. Everybody was really taken aback but I suppose it just goes to show how comfortable he is in the café.”
Karen and her husband Jon founded the Rainbow Club after Sean was diagnosed with autism, in order to ensure families wouldn’t be in the same predicament that they were, by not being able to find social outlets for Sean when he was very young.
His new business is a reflection of the message of the club.
“When you’re giving them an environment that really gets it and can support them, it does reduce anxiety around them trying new things and embracing new things,” said Karen. “That’s what the Rainbow Club’s message is always about.
“It’s about embracing every child and giving them a chance to learn at their own pace and also giving them an environment that can help to nurture ability in areas they do not know themselves that they have great strengths in.”
While Sean used to be very withdrawn, Molly said she can see the massive difference the baking has made to his confidence.
“He’ll stop and say, ‘hi, how are you?’ which doesn’t seem like a big thing but for us, he never really did that so it’s really massive. It’s given him huge confidence and he’s kind of joking around with the staff in here and making friends as well which is great.
“It’s a huge turnaround from what we’re used to with him.”
The baking has given him an outlet, she said.
“Obviously school, traditional education didn’t work for him. He was being forced in a box he didn’t fit into, and it caused him anxiety.
“So, I think for him, knowing that he has a skill, and he has an interest that he can build on... it’s very comforting for him I think, and it has given him a lot of stability, knowing that he didn’t get lost in the education system, he started something else.”