In a whimsical café situated at a cozy nook in Quezon City, a family is trying to get the word out: being different is okay. The Puzzle Gourmet Store & Café is an autism-friendly café that trains persons with disabilities to be servers, in order to give them a chance to earn, practice their social skills, and experience real work. Walk through their doors and you get a glimpse of the colorful but complex world of autism.
The Canoy family, a humorous and tight-knit family of eight, thought up the café for Jose, 20, who was diagnosed with autism when he was four years old. The fifth out of six children, they noticed Jose was different because of the way his eyes would intently follow the wheels of a bike as it spun round and round; or how he would be so engrossed with his toy trains when he made them glide across the table.
Jose’s older sister Ciab, 23, who is currently finishing a degree in special education at Miriam College, manages the café. “It was definitely close to my heart. I wanted to learn more about autism because the extent of my knowledge before I entered college was just Jose. When I started becoming exposed to different schools and different individuals, my passion became even deeper.”
Ciab is hands-on with many of the trainees at the café, just as she has always been when Jose was growing up. Though it was natural for the whole family to become nurturing towards Jose, it was Ciab, along with her mom, and Jose’s yaya Gina (who has been with their family for 25 years), who became most invested in his progress.
Toons, 28, Ciab’s older brother and co-manager at the café, says accepting Jose’s autism was a big step in helping the family move forward. “We realized that we had to stop trying so hard to give him a normal life, because he’s different. And when we had that kind of acceptance, that’s when we realized we didn’t have to force things. Slowly, we started to think of things to do that would help him in the long run.” The family restarted their game plan, and began teaching him basic but practical lessons — teaching Jose how to dress up on his own, how to take a shower, and how to read the time. And then eventually, the idea of a café blossomed.
If you visit the café in the afternoon, you will chance upon some of their servers on their two-hour guided shifts. Puzzle Café currently trains nine persons with disabilities, two of whom are diagnosed with Down syndrome. They will greet you at the entrance, offer you a menu, and take your orders — all guided by a script developed by Jose’s speech therapist, and a few people from their partner school Independent Living Learning Center (ILLC).
The brother and sister tandem say that their goal with the café is not to put such people on a pedestal — they merely want to inform people that autism is an absolutely okay thing. “When people ask us, ‘Aren’t you afraid that you’re exposing them to people who will not understand what autism is?’ I say, ‘That’s the point. It’s for people to see firsthand. Because autism exists everywhere, no matter how you want to deny it,’” says Toons.
So when a trainee begins to throw a fit or a tantrum while working, which involves a lot of crying, lying down on the floor or even hyperventilating — the situation is always handled, but never censored. “We’re not trying to sugarcoat it. We want to show people that this is how it is. If we hide the reality of the situation, then that would be going against the very thing that we’re trying to do here,” says Ciab.
Although Toons and Ciab have spent their childhood with Jose, they say that every day, there is still so much to learn — both about autism and themselves. They insist that, if people bring a sense of understanding, autism can become more accepted. “Some parents come in here for the first time, nag-iiyakan sila ni Ciab. Those are moms themselves who are perhaps afraid to expose the conditions of their children,” shares Toons. “And it’s not so much that they’re ashamed,” adds Ciab, “but more of… scared, because they don’t know how to handle it.” This fear is exactly what they want to eradicate.
Like pieces of a puzzle, jagged at the edges and specially built in their own ways, students with autism are just as unique. But if we take the time to get to know more about them, we can help them piece the difficulties and oddities together, and only then will a clearer and bigger picture start to form.
Puzzle Gourmet Store & Café is located at 1 Comets Loop, Blue Ridge B, Quezon City. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/puzzlecafeph and follow them on Instagram @puzzlecafeph.