Oct 08, 2012 0 Share

Parenting Outside the Box

Anthony Barrett at podium with mother standing next to him.
Photo courtesy of Deborah Barrett

There is a saying that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Likewise, as any parent of a child with special needs knows, ingenuity is the necessity of all mothers!

Over the years, I have had to create opportunities for Cameron that weren’t necessarily straight forward. Sometimes it takes a little luck and a lot of creativity to come up with a working solution for whatever the issue of the day may be. Realizing I’m not the only parent required to flex my creative thinking muscles, “Transition from the Trenches” will be featuring a series of parent stories illustrating creative solutions for their adult children with ASD.

The first featured parent is Deborah Barrett, mom to Anthony Barrett whose micro-enterprise, Anthony at Your Service, was introduced my article “From Interest to Innovation: The Micro-Enterprise Model of Employment.” Deborah’s life work has been shaped by her parenting a child with autism. Thinking outside the box is her default mode of thinking. What follows is Deborah’s description of the evolution of Anthony at Your Service. Worth noting is that she always has an eye towards repeating Anthony’s successes in the autism community at large:

As a mom, I guess I see that Anthony at Your Service brings a different perspective to thinking about employment for adults with autism or other developmental disabilities.

The idea for a courier service came about after I'd spent a couple hours on a sunny summer day with Anthony in a dish pit at a local restaurant. Anthony loves dishwashers, so this opportunity was great for him as a work experience placement, and he volunteered there during the summers. But when we came out of the dish pit into the sunny day, I realized that I didn't want Anthony to spend his life hidden away, missing the daylight, and not really being seen as a participating member of the community. I began tossing ideas around with Anthony's worker, Christian Hansen (of the band Christian Hansen and the Autistics). We started to identify the other things Anthony loved, like being outdoors, riding in cars and listening to music, seeing new places and new faces, and moving on. More and more, we thought a courier job would be ideal.

The glitch was how to find a courier company that could accommodate Anthony's needs and the rate at which he could work. We struggled to think of how we could find the right employer for Anthony, who has significant autism. The idea incubated over a couple of years, during which Christian (sadly for us) moved to Toronto.

Enter Mike (Hamm). When I spoke to Mike, he started to think in terms of "deliveries" rather than courier services. "Deliveries" sounds more individual, more unique, more of something special. When we thought of it that way, we could see how this could be a service Anthony himself provided, with Mike's assistance. The name Anthony at Your Service just came to me, and Mike liked it. Then Mike realized that Anthony himself would be the way to present the opportunity to potential customers.

What I think is so important about this, is that Anthony at Your Service plays to Anthony's strengths and the things he likes to do. More than that, though, it's Anthony's business. It leaves control with Anthony, his family and Mike. Because it's our idea and our business, we can control things to make it serve Anthony as much as to make it serve the community. So often parents and family members get bogged down in trying to find an employer and trying to massage a possible job for their teen or adult with autism. In this case, and with Mike's talent for presenting Anthony so positively to the community, we were able to customize something that is geared toward giving Anthony a job that involves stuff he loves, but also challenges him to grow. At the same time, the public is aware of Anthony—not as a "weird autistic guy" or a "charity case"—but as a loveable man with autism who is a participating, contributing member of our community.

In a way, that makes Anthony safer. People who wouldn't otherwise know Anthony now do. They understand that he is both autistic AND a member of the community. People care about Anthony. I think people would be very sad if somehow Anthony could not continue doing what he is doing. Opportunities for abuse are substantially decreased when adults with developmental disabilities have more public roles. More than that, it makes community members who may not otherwise know an adult with autism more appreciative of the challenges they have as well as the gifts they offer. Anthony at Your Service presents Anthony as able to give something back. People really want to work with that and support it. It's a much different attitude than "taking pity" on an adult with autism. The more positive energy we build in the community, the more diverse and rich it becomes.

I cannot tell you the number of positive responses we have had to Anthony at Your Service. I realize now that there are so many people willing to embrace this young adult with significant disability, because they want to support his struggle to be a full, visible member of our community. I think we just had to present it in a context they could support.

What does this mean for others? Perhaps it gives some families the opportunity to think outside the box. Perhaps they will create opportunities that do not exist in the services that are currently available. Perhaps we see that we can focus on strengths and that the gifts our loved ones bring to family members can be extended to community members. Maybe, when we focus on the strengths rather than deficits and we support the strengths, we can begin to transform the role of persons with developmental disabilities in our communities. At the same time, we broaden the capacity of the community to understand, engage with, and appreciate the gifts persons with autism inherently bring to community life.

Deborah has graciously provided an update of the progress of Anthony at Your Service as the real numbers have emerged:

 Anthony is making a very small profit, or a little better profit, depending upon how you look at things. Mike has devised a way to keep better track on Anthony's hours and Mike's mileage, which is our biggest expense at 50 cents/kilometer. So we should have better figures next month. Anthony is not quite making minimum wage, but we think with re-jigging our price point and keeping our service within a certain distance, Anthony should be able to make minimum wage for the time he works, and expenses will get paid as well. It can provide a model for those who qualify for funding as adults in Alberta, but wouldn't work well for those who do not qualify for funding, I'm afraid, unless they were capable of driving their own vehicles. 

It's amazing how much hope families are taking from this venture, though. And a few businesses have approached us with some excellent opportunities, which we hope to take advantage of once we've established what works in terms of price point and geographic area served. One mom is even willing to drive her son, just so he can have the experience of participating in community life through this type of work. 

Deborah understands, like many parents of young adults with autism, that opportunities are often created. I have often felt as though I was reinventing the wheel with every new challenge I face as Cameron’s mom. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that somewhere someone has traveled down a similar path, and learning from that prior experience would make my path that much easier. If you have a successful and innovative journey you’d like to share with “Transition from the Trenches,” please email me. Each month, a new creative transition solution will be featured, and hopefully we’ll all be a little better at thinking outside the box as a result.