Made by Brad: Thinking Outside the Box
Brad Fremmerlind, a 25-year-old man in Edmonton, Alberta, has been making headlines with his furniture-assembly business, Made by Brad. Brad is nonverbal and autistic, and with the help of his family and day program workers, he's built a growing business. Recently, Autism After 16 talked with Brad's mother, Deb Fremmerlind, about the motivations and methodology behind Made by Brad.
AA16: Tell us a bit about Brad; specifically, what was his typical day/work situation like before the business began?
DF: Brad (Brad Lee) lives in a group home, less than five minutes from our home. He attends a day program with the Excel Society at the Gerard Raymond Centre, and he is severely affected by autism. He doesn't speak, so he uses around 200 functional signs to communicate. Our biggest struggle is this: he's very ritualistic. He can form a ritual very quickly; if you do something with him three times—like go get ice cream after a job—then chances are, it's really stuck.
Each day, Brad gets driven to his day program. There, he works with an iPad program to improve his communication … He practices manually writing words, and doing Google searches for pictures; we want to get him to have a whole picture of the language. When he's not working on that, he attends various classes, like cooking and sign language, and goes on outings.
Brad had some difficult times starting at age 15. At the time, we lived in a northern community, and both in school and at home, he just couldn't function—he'd become so ritualistic. And when aggression occurs with Brad, it's due to the interrupting of a ritual. With Brad, though, if there's a big life change, like a move, we can change rituals; we can re-evaluate and eliminate the ones that are not productive. So, when his agency was moving locations, we changed the rituals …You have to figure out what you want his day to look like, and how he can function.
AA16: How did the idea for the business come about? What were the concrete steps you took to get it set up and running?
DF: Brad's "business" is simply a tool to increase [his] social interaction with the community and to help with his life-long education. We want to develop Brad's social awareness and give back to the community by providing a service. Brad learned to build furniture from years of following diagrams, building plastic models and Legos. We'd buy Lego projects and send them to [his] day program to give him something productive to do. Ever since he started at the program, we wanted to figure out how to use his skills in building furniture. In the fall of 2013, we set a goal with Brad's day program that Brad would build furniture for people.
We felt supported by the day program, but the business was always on the back burner; there were always so many things to work on with Brad Lee! Finally, this fall, we said, “OK, let's put it in writing as one of his goals.” After that, it happened very quickly … You do need to have the right staff. There's a wonderful young man, who's very patient, who takes [Brad] to jobs.
I've always told support workers, “Whatever you're interested in, introduce it to Brad Lee, and see how it goes.” Because that's what we did at home. [My husband, Brad's father] Mark loves classic cars and airplanes, so we'd buy plastic models. It was very deliberate; we chose them because they have wonderful picture diagrams. Then there was a lot of training, so [Brad] would learn to stay on task. We spent so much money on Lego projects, and that naturally flowed into furniture. Any furniture that comes in a box with a diagram, he can put it together. He's quite good at it, but it's a learned skill. We have engineers in the family … but he's practiced since he was 3. We bought things for him to practice on … but eventually, we just didn't need any more furniture!
AA16: What's been the most challenging part of starting a business for you as parents? For Brad? The best part?
DF: The most challenging is Brad's ritualistic behavior, but once he's in a new place, a new job, it broadens his social awareness.
On today's project, Brad got a little rough; he was apparently prancing around, not working. His support worker texted Mark, to say, “Brad Lee's a little distracted!” Mark said, “You can just work on it yourself, and get it going.” And then Brad jumped in after that. He can usually stay on task, but it takes a while for him to get going. He's very focused once he starts.
Also, Brad Lee doesn't respect people's personal space … Initially, we thought we'd go into stores and have him build furniture there, but he needs one-on-one [support] and can't focus for very long. He can go in and do one project, that's it. So we thought, If stores are out, we'd like him to get out and experience building [furniture] in other people's homes. When my husband would have days off, he'd place online ads to find building jobs that they could do together. Brad doesn't like large crowds, so going into homes works well for him.
AA16: How has “Made by Brad” been set up legally?
DF: Right now it's not set up [as a legal business]. It's just one avenue, a part of his day program, but we had to call it something … Financially the business is so small it may never turn a profit. You can think of it like a kid with a grass-cutting or snow-shoveling business in their neighborhood. I can't talk about the business model because we are less than six weeks [at the time of the interview] into this. I can talk about Brad his strengths and weakness, what his days look like, and [our] hopes for the future.
We're just being very cautious. We don't want Brad to be overwhelmed or overstimulated; we just want to enhance his social skills and give back to the community. If Brad gets too many demands, there can be behaviors such as noise, and sometimes—very rarely—aggressive behavior, though he'll immediately apologize … If we control the environment, then [the behaviors] are all under control, but if we let this thing get too big … well, it has to be Brad-centered. The clients are wonderful, but it has to be Brad-centered. If it isn't, it could be detrimental to him.
AA16: What's the intake process like for new clients? Approximately how many clients/jobs does Brad do in a typical week? In what areas is he independent, and where does he need the most support?
DF: Brad does three to four jobs a week, and we book one to two weeks in advance. The price is determined by the size of the project and the proximity to his day program. Brad travels to his jobs with his support worker, and each job usually takes two to three hours. We are hoping to keep the business going through Brad's Facebook page and his website. Potential clients can contact us through both sites. Before the video, Mark took Brad to a few jobs that he got through placing a Kijiji ad [similar to Craigslist], and it was very positive experience for Brad.
We have to be careful not to set a pattern [with jobs] … that's why it works to go into these different homes and build a variety of projects. We usually do jobs a first-come, first-served basis, but sometimes that varies. We try to do jobs that are close to the day program or to our house, and jobs that offer variety. For example, if we have too many desk orders coming in, then we say, OK, this doll house project takes precedence. We've had amazing customers.
It took a little while to figure out how to do [scheduling]; initially, we thought he'd do a job a day. But then an opportunity for snowshoeing came up, and now Brad goes snowshoeing on Wednesdays. And three to four jobs per week really is better for him … it's focused on his needs, his social awareness.
AA16: How did you determine pay scale? Do you see it changing in the future?
DF: We're still working prices out. As his parents, we debate … basically, the price is based on the size of the job and the proximity to Brad's day program. If it takes a long time to get there, we charge more. By contrast, we had a request to build a kitchen table and chair for a group home, and he did it for free, as part of community service. It's not about money, it's about social development and life-long learning.
AA16: How did you gain such wide media coverage? Has that been helpful for Made by Brad's growth?
DF: For about two years, Mark has meet monthly with Ben Weinlick (of Think Jar Collective) to develop and implement an iPad program for Brad. It was in one of these meetings that the idea to make a video to help Brad get work was discussed. Mike Hamm made a very good video showcasing Brad's skills, and the video took on a life of his own. The media has made us out to be more than we are, but the media has also helped us get jobs.
AA16: Who will support Brad in this business if/when there comes a time when you as his parents cannot? Or will it just disappear?
DF: When I think about the future … I'm glad that Made by Brad is in association with day program and skilled staff, so it is sustainable. Brad's support worker is paid for by the province. His earnings are small and they go into his regular savings account. The amounts are small so we are not concerned [about loss of Brad's benefits]; however we will have our accountant do Brad's taxes from now on.
Right now, [the business] is perfect for Brad. For his entire life, we've always tried to think outside the box, partly out of necessity. We just don't want him—or anyone!—to languish in a group home and do absolutely nothing. We don't know where this [business] is going to take Brad; it's solely determined by Brad's needs.
AA16: Do you have a sense that perhaps it was easier to help develop the business with Brad once you and your husband were no longer his full-time caregivers?
DF: It is easier when we're not caregivers, but then, both of us work full-time too … In any case, [Brad] is 25, so he needs to be an adult, and this is a way for him to do that.
AA16: What are some of your hopes for Brad's future?
DF: We would love for him to have more language skills, to develop in that area—he can communicate, we just want him to have more language. Really, his rituals are a bigger issue than communication, though. I always talk about preventing the development of unproductive rituals.
AA16: What advice would you give to families looking to set up something similar?
DF: Take whatever their adult child is interested in, and ask, is there some way to develop that? And never to give up.
Sometimes people look at Brad and they don't realize that there were times in his life that were very difficult. He had to leave our home at the age of 15; his rituals resulted in aggression and holes in walls. The school couldn't handle it … We figured out we needed to move our family with Brad Lee to Edmonton … My husband had to re-train as a Medivac pilot for work, and then it was about a year before the rest of us [Brad is second oldest of four children] could come. And then we got Brad Lee into a high school, a community living program, and he was a challenge … But never give up. Wherever you are right now is not where you're going to end up.