The teenage owner of The Expedition Soap Company spoke on a self-advocacy panel at the 13th Annual World Conference & Expo on Autism last month in Las Vegas, Nevada. Attendees came from 8 countries, 38 U.S. states, including over 150 cities for this sold-out conference.
When Spencer Kelly of Lake Orion, Michigan, was younger, he found it difficult to simply have a conversation with someone. Now the 17-year-old with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, has become a spokesperson for how homeschooling can help struggling students excel.
In six years of learning at home, Spencer went from being quiet and unfocused to winning quiz bowl competitions and launching his own business. These accomplishments earned him an invitation to speak for the first time at the 2017 World Conference for Autism in Portland, Oregon, where he shared his own experiences in coping with Asperger’s.
Some of Spencer’s favorite conference moments from 2017 and 2018 were getting to chat with Temple Grandin, one of the world’s most well known and accomplished adults who was born with autism. (The HBO movie based on her life, starring Claire Danes, received seven Emmy Awards and we highly recommend it.)
In Spencer’s case, homeschooling has lived up to its reputation as an excellent means for addressing developmental issues—but his mother Tracie admits they chose to do it almost as a last resort.
“It was a very new process for me,” she says. “I was one hundred percent unfamiliar with homeschooling. But he just needed to be in an environment that was good for him. And the one place we could think of was home.”
Spencer attended a public charter school through 5th grade. Because he found it hard to focus in a classroom setting, he often withdrew into the world of books. This added to the pressure of trying to interact with other students.
“I could barely speak,” Spencer explains. “My mind would wander.”
In 5th grade, he finally became overwhelmed because he no longer learned from a single homeroom teacher, but changed classrooms throughout the day in order to receive instruction from teachers with different specialties.
At that point Tracie decided to homeschool Spencer.
She started by attending the annual conference held by the Information Network for Christian Homes (INCH), Michigan’s premiere homeschool organization.
“I dove right in,” Tracie says. “I’ve gone every year since.”
Free of distractions and able to pursue his interests in his new homeschool program, Spencer thrived.
“The first day I started homeschooling was one of the best days of my life,” he says. “I learned more than I ever learned in school.”
Tracie attests to her son’s gratitude at being able to study at home. “Every day for the first year and a half,” she says, “Spencer thanked me for letting him homeschool.”
Spencer says he’s continued to focus on reading in a wide variety of genres, from Aesop’s fables to Homer’s epics.
Through a part-time partnership with a local high school, Spencer also connected with the Quiz Bowl competition in which teams answer questions from a wide variety of subjects including history, science, literature, and current events. He helped guide his team to multiple first-place finishes in the past two years.
Profiting from Theft
Spencer’s biggest project right now is his burgeoning business selling soaps and lotions. The Expedition Soap Company offers luxury soaps, all with a base of five oils (hemp, coconut, soybean, corn, and olive oil) plus Organic Shea Butter.
Its success has garnered more than just sales; it has brought him local media attention and the chance to present to a national audience.
But oddly enough, Spencer says, it all started in response to a petty crime.
As Spencer tells it, he and a friend had their bicycles stolen from outside a local restaurant. His father agreed to replace his missing bike on the condition that Spencer eventually pay him back.
And so, as a means of earning money to cover the cost of the bike, the idea for ExpeditionSoaps.com was born.
After several months of laying the groundwork, Spencer launched the business in September 2016.
“I designed the logo; I designed the website,” he says. “It was quite a summer.”
He started by offering a dozen organic shea butter soaps and natural oils. In response to customer feedback, Spencer now markets more than 60 products including lotions, body butters, and bath bombs. New this year he even has a soap called Detroit Mud!
Though his advertising budget is minimal, Spencer has labored especially hard at person-to-person sales, having worked about 30 expos and trade shows.
“I love it,” he admits, “because I really get to interact with the customer on a one-on-one basis and come out of my shell.”
Spencer’s long-term goals include growing the business as well as offering an alternative to traditional fundraisers. He created ExpeditionSoapsFundraising.com to provide organizations a way to raise funds while being health-conscious.
He also wants to increase his own ability to make charitable donations, for example, to the U.S. Autism and Asperger Association.
“It’s very important for me to give back to the community,” he says.
But mostly Spencer just wants to encourage others like himself.
“Kids my age are the future,” he says. “They aren’t limited just because they have autism and Asperger’s.”
No matter who you are, he insists, “Make your own path in life.”
Grant, Spencer’s younger brother, will be taking over Expedition Soaps next year when Spencer leaves for college.
Spencer has participated in a few summer programs put on by Oakland University’s Business School (which he thought were great!) and he currently dual enrolls at Oakland University, having taken a few business classes already (and loving them!).
Spencer eventually plans to attend the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s where Donald Trump went, and look where he ended up,” he quips.
Highlights from Spencer’s activities and appearances are shared on The Expedition Soap Company’s Facebook page.
You can also check here to see the latest news about Spencer and The Expedition Soap Company.