OK to be dif­fer­ent at autism-friendly cafe


Guided by a ther­a­pist and cue cards, Jose Canoy care­fully re­moved a waf­fle from the grid­dle, turned off the waf­fle maker and asked for a serv­ing plate from the kitchen staff at Manila’s brightly-dec­o­rated Puz­zle Cafe. Each of Canoy’s next moves were sim­i­larly laid out in in­dex cards with pic­tures: A script for greet­ing cus­tomers, of­fer­ing them the menu, serv­ing the food and fi­nally hand­ing out the bill.

Canoy, 20, is among seven trainees with autism at the small cafe, which aims to pro­vide its work­ers a place to as­sim­i­late into so­ci­ety, im­prove so­cial skills and spread aware­ness of the poorly un­der­stood dis­or­der, which the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion es­ti­mates im­pairs about one child for ev­ery 160 world­wide.

Canoy’s el­der brother and co-owner of the cafe, Jose An­to­nio, said his fam­ily de­cided to cre­ate the cof­fee shop to help his younger brother be­come pro­duc­tive and se­cure his fu­ture. The fam­ily also wants to pro­mote autism aware­ness and to train oth­ers like Jose to help them find per­ma­nent, pay­ing jobs and avoid be­ing os­tra­cized. Two other ap­pren­tices have Down syn­drome and most of the trainees are in their 20s.

“We’re out here to show peo­ple that be­ing dif­fer­ent is not bad,” Jose An­to­nio Canoy said. “You can live it.”

The autism-friendly cafe, with Thomas the Train toys and pic­ture puzzles on its shelves, opened in Novem­ber and held a grand open­ing cer­e­mony April 11, in time for Autism Aware­ness Month. The puz­zle piece is a global sym­bol of autism.

Cards and crafts made by young peo­ple with autism are sold in the cafe, where odd-shaped ta­bles are paired with brightly colored chairs. A leaf-shaped wooden ta­ble bears th­ese words, painted in red and black: “If you think I’m puz­zling, imag­ine what the world is like for me.”

Dr. Anna Tre­ich­ler, a de­vel­op­men­tal and be­hav­ioral pe­di­a­tri­cian in Manila, said work­ing in the cof­fee shop helps peo­ple with autism be­cause it al­lows them to de­velop their so­cial in­ter­ac­tion skills.

The cafe has three paid chefs — in­clud­ing one with autism but who is highly func­tion­ing — and a salaried cashier. The nine trainees with autism and Down syn­drome who can­not yet work in­de­pen­dently do not re­ceive salaries, the own­ers said. Jose, how­ever, re­ceives money from his par­ents for the work he does at the cafe.

Ac­cord­ing to the WHO, autism spec­trum dis­or­ders are com­plex brain devel­op­ment dis­or­ders char­ac­ter­ized by dif­fi­cul­ties in so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion and a re­stricted and repet­i­tive set of in­ter­ests and ac­tiv­i­ties. Peo­ple with autism of­ten suf­fer from stigma and dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Josephine de Je­sus, a Manila-based speech and lan­guage ther­a­pist, and oth­ers with train­ing work with the trainees. She said the cafe’s autis­tic staff at first had to be pushed to work, and some were up­set about changes to their rou­tine sched­ule. She pre­pared scripts for them so they can start con­ver­sa­tions with cus­tomers.

Uni­lab Foun­da­tion’s Project In­clu­sion, a sup­porter of Puz­zle Cafe, part­ners with schools and or­ga­ni­za­tions to re­search and pro­mote em­ploy­ment of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. The foun­da­tion of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany Uni­lab has done a study show­ing the benefits of hir­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, and is de­vel­op­ing a hu­man re­sources man­ual to equip com­pa­nies will­ing to hire them.

Project of­fi­cer Grant Javier said the foun­da­tion it­self hired three peo­ple with autism. One is a graphic artist who turned out to have an­other spe­cial tal­ent — he can ef­fi­ciently and quickly process tall stacks of re­im­burse­ment re­ceipts and rec­on­cile piles of checks.

Mona Magno Veluz, na­tional pres­i­dent of Autism So­ci­ety Philip­pines, said there are no stud­ies on autism preva­lence specif­i­cally in the Philip­pines, but notes that the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion says stud­ies in Asia, Europe and North Amer­ica have found that about 1 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion has it.

That would sug­gest that in the Philip­pines, a na­tion of 100 mil­lion, there are about 1 mil­lion peo­ple with autism. But Veluz said just 100,000 Filipinos have been for­mally di­ag­nosed, and only half of those have re­ceived in­ter­ven­tion like ther­apy or spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion be­cause of a dearth of ex­perts and trained pro­fes­sion­als. The coun­try has only around 50 de­vel­op­men­tal pe­di­a­tri­cians, and less than a thou­sand oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pists and speech pathol­o­gists, she added.

Veluz, whose son Carl works at Puz­zle Cafe, said the shop has made autism friend­li­ness a sell­ing point in its busi­ness strat­egy, cre­at­ing a tem­plate that other busi­nesses can fol­low.

She said it com­forts her to know there is a place her fam­ily can go and talk to other fam­i­lies who also live with autism, with­out wor­ry­ing about get­ting stares or dis­turb­ing other peo­ple. As the sign on the cafe’s door says: “We’re A-OK.”


(Top) In this April 7 photo, Josephine de Je­sus, a speech and lan­guage ther­a­pist, left, works with trainees with autism at the Puz­zle Cafe in sub­ur­ban Que­zon City, north of Manila. (Above) In this April 7 photo, Josephine de Je­sus, a speech and lan­guage ther­a­pist, cen­ter, con­ducts some ex­er­cises to the staff at the Puz­zle Cafe in sub­ur­ban Que­zon City, north of Manila.

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