Puzzle Gourmet Store and Café, Serving a Special Need

The folks at Puzzle Cafe

Last November, Girlie Canoy set up the Puzzle Gourmet Store and Café in order to provide a future for her son Jose, who has autism. Her daughter, Ysabella Canoy is the general manager. After graduating from college, she wants to go to the States for a master’s in Applied Behavioral Analysis and then return to the Philippines to help people here. I spoke with both women in the next-door gallery, also owned by Girlie Canoy. The Puzzle Café project has evolved well beyond its original purpose.

Ysabella and Girlie Canoy’s story

Mother and daughter

Our son and brother Jose quit school after the fifth grade because it wasn’t doing any good anymore. He found it so boring, and it was exasperating for us when we had to tutor him for exams. Autism had greatly affected his ability to learn a first language, let alone a second, and since English is the language of our home, he didn’t speak Filipino. We couldn’t see a reason for him to keep going to school. He’d already learned as much as he was going to. It was more important to learn life skills like how to cross the street, how to talk on the phone, how to count money—things he wasn’t learning in a mainstream school. Since his education was limited, we were looking for a place for him to work which would still be open in five, ten years from now.

The café just happened. When I took Jose to the grocery store, I noticed he would straighten up the cans on the shelves, lining them up properly. He loves to fix everything. I told the children we should open a convenience store for him. The kids wanted to make it into a coffee shop. Then the interior designer made this place so beautiful that it became a café. One day I opened my eyes and said to myself, “I don’t know how to run a restaurant. What am I doing here?” I called up a niece and said, “You have to help me because we’re opening in two weeks and I don’t even know what to buy.” So she helped me, and now it’s there. Originally, it was planned for Jose, but other individuals with autism came here in the hope of landing real jobs in the future.

Jose Canoy

People with autism are all different. Jose happens to be one of those where it takes longer than most people for him to understand and it’s harder for him to talk, to communicate. Basically autism is a neurological disorder. There are various theories about it, but the causes and cures are still unknown. There is no correct answer for everyone. The early red flags are difficulty in communicating, hand clapping, lack of eye contact, great sensitivity to light, sound, smells and noise. Speech is in very repetitive language. People with autism don’t really learn from their environment, and they’re not stimulated by the things happening around them. They probably clap their hands to stimulate themselves. Jose talks to himself for stimulation the way we might talk to each other. They seem to have a hard time processing things around them, so they find comfort in things that happen again and again, such as watching the same video over and over because it seems normal and predictable. People sometimes think that individuals with autism live in their own world, which may be true, but I think it’s because they’re having a hard time processing what’s around them. It’s overwhelming—all the people, sights and sounds and smells—because all their senses are heightened. So they can hear things that we don’t necessarily hear, smell things we don’t smell. They see things so much differently than we do.

A tabletop

It’s important to realize that autism has a very wide spectrum. Here we have high-functioning kids, but there are also low-functioning people who are thirty years old and in adult diapers because they’ve never been toilet trained. Maybe they haven’t received the proper care and education. Some people aren’t as blessed as the kids we have here. Of these ten people, no two the same, although there are some similarities among all of them. They’re all high-functioning, but at different tasks. You should be prepared to be surprised.

Coming here is a different kind of experience from just sitting in a café and drinking coffee with friends. Customers get to experience firsthand what autistic people are actually capable of. They see that the kids are happy and interacting with others. That’s more than just reading about autism. First and foremost, we’re focusing on awareness. We want people to see that people with autism can function, that they’re not so abnormal that they can’t do anything or communicate at all. We want them to show that given opportunities our kids can actually work. And it’s not just a matter of opportunity. It’s a matter of acceptance. Twenty years ago if we took Jose out in public and he acted a little strange people would look us over from head to foot, saying nonverbally, “You should have left him at home.” Over the years there’s been a definite change, but not everyone has come around.

Another tabletop

The café gets the kids ready for employment. It’s part of their therapy. Here they get to interact with others. It’s not the same as being in school. They come through the Independent Living and Learning Center or through a therapist we’ve been working with for over ten years, Josephine de Jesus. Both the school and the therapist focus on teaching life skills. For us it’s crucial to work together with them because they know the individuals they’ve sent to us so much better than we do. We collaborate in deciding what the individual is interested in and what he or she is able to do. Out of all their students the teachers had to decide who was highly functional and not resistant to learning because, as we said, some autistic people just want to stick to what they already know, and it’s hard for them to get used to something new. Others want to work and meet new people. They’re interested in what we’re doing and they’re very good at following instructions.

At first the teachers and the therapist were very much present. In the beginning it’s important that the kids see that they’re being watched. They can’t be left alone. Now we’re doing that less and less. The teachers and the therapist showed us how to handle the kids. We didn’t know much about their individual personalities, and they were only with us for two hours at first. We didn’t know what they were like anywhere else. So that was very important, the transition from the therapist or the teachers to us.

We set the original session at two hours so as not to overwhelm anyone, but in that period of time we were able to identify who could work longer. Some now work every day—like Jose. Some work three times a week, some just once a week. We need to be careful in this setting where customers don’t necessarily know the extent of their condition. Two weeks ago we hired a cook, Carmelo San Diego, who was diagnosed with autism, but he had two years of culinary experience and had graduated from culinary school. He’s working and getting paid. We’re still not sure whether he can actually be left alone to work by himself. But we decided to give him a chance, and he’s doing well.

Customers read the menu and select what they want on this order sheet.

The food and drink on the menu consists of house favorites. You have to have good food so people will come back, but we say, “Remember we are not here to make money. We are here for the advocacy.” Of course, we have to make money also because we’re looking at Jose’s future. We don’t want to burden anybody, especially financially, even though he has five siblings who have all volunteered to take care of him. You don’t know whether a future spouse might not agree.

Yes, we have a sign saying “April is Autism Month.” It’s a worldwide celebration which has evolved. Before it was “autism awareness,” but now I think it’s becoming “autism acceptance.” People are aware that individuals with autism exist. So the next step is acceptance. What we’re striving for is a more inclusive community, inclusive in the sense that people are more sensitive to the special needs of these individuals and understand that they’re viable employees in the workplace. So this year we partnered up with a lot of companies who are also trying to educate their staff about possibly hiring an individual with autism.

Message on the front door

This effort was spearheaded by the Unilab Foundation, which set up a meeting with several schools and companies such as McDonald’s, LBC, Jollibee and all the SM’s. It’s a step in the right direction. Hopefully in the future people won’t need a special Autism Month to learn about it because it’s already very much known in the community.

The companies involved in this effort are aware of how productive individuals with autism are because of their strong focus on the task they were asked to do. Ysabella was invited to join in with the Unilab Foundation’s efforts because of her firsthand experience in an establishment where people with autism interact directly with the public. We know a lot of companies who have autistic employees working in the background, doing this like drawing. But having people with autism who interact, we’re one of the very few. She’s been invited to help prepare a manual for companies who do want to do this. It’s still in the process.