Conducted by Franca Pastro, BA, ASAT Board Member and Parent
Franca: Tell us a bit about your youngest son, Alex.
Barbara: Alex is an active, happy 22-year-old young man whose life is severely impacted by his autism, which includes significant communication deficit, an intellectual disability, and seizure disorder. He was diagnosed with autism on his 2nd birthday and started receiving intensive Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy at three years four months. Alex is a gentle, easy-going soul. He wants to please and is happy when he knows you are happy. Positive comments or cheers for a song well played or a lap well swum will always get a smile from him. He loves to play Happy Birthday on the piano for friends or family. He relies on order and schedules to understand what is happening in his day and to complete many tasks. He always makes his bed, quickly grabs a dishcloth if someone is washing the dishes, and always puts things back in their place. He has been known to take a product out of a customer’s buggy or hands at Home Hardware to put it back on the shelf (oops!).
Franca: Sounds like a great young man! When did you start thinking about employment for him?
Barbara: Pre-employment skill-development has been part of Alex’s Three Year Goals and IEPs since he was 10 years old. He began participating in work experience opportunities in his grade 10 year. In 2010, we participated in an exercise called “A Day in the Life of Alex 2016.” We used this exercise to start transition planning for Alex and employment was an important part of that exercise. We asked each of our team members to write up their ideas/hopes of what an ideal day in his adult life might look like. My husband, David, and I did the same. Our consultant and we used the ideas to identify skills he would need to learn in order to lead a positive, productive life. It was a brilliant activity. I remember one of our team members, when we were looking at the results, saying, “We have a lot of work to do!”
Franca: You have certainly dedicated years of preparation for employment for Alex and I understand that he is engaged in various types of employment. Can you share how this came about?
Barbara: In looking at employment options for Alex, we looked for jobs that he would do well – that had a specific list of tasks we could teach him with a check list and then fade ourselves from the process. He had work experience opportunities while at school as part of a work experience program. After he left school, two of them resulted in post graduation employment positions – one paid and one as a volunteer. He is currently a paid employee at our local Home Hardware stocking liquids one day and one evening a week. Also, he volunteers at Community Lunches one morning a week where he sets up the hall for the lunches. After graduation, our family started a microbusiness for him, The Canine Kitchen Co. This employment opportunity generates some income to help offset support costs.
Franca: Does Alex enjoy his work?
Barbara: Alex has very little language; he doesn’t articulate whether he likes or doesn’t like his work. He does all three jobs very successfully and cooperatively. He knows exactly what is expected of him and works consistently at each of them until the jobs are complete. He is happy that others are pleased with the job he does. He is always content and ready to go to work. We believe working allows others to see Alex’s abilities not just his disabilities. It contributes to a life of dignity, purpose and options.
Franca: Can you share with us how the initial idea of The Canine Kitchen Co. evolved?
Barbara: Our team brainstormed a number of different micro-business options. The idea of the pet treat business came from one of Alex’s ABA therapists, Carla. She had a new puppy and talked about how much people spend on their dogs and how important pure, local and healthy food is to pet owners. We started with dehydrated beef liver, chicken and yam chips. Carla was committed to making the project work; she and Alex’s dad, David, approached local stores, decided on the products, researched packaging ideas, generated name ideas and chose our logo. David took the lead on packaging and labels, buying equipment, working on sample product and interacting with businesses. Alex’s uncle put together the website www.thecaninekitchen.net. At this point, we are purposefully keeping his business manageable by supplying three local stores only, but that could change over time.
Franca: How involved is Alex in his pet treats business?
Barbara: Because of his intellectual disability and limited communication skills, Alex has little involvement in decisions about his microbusiness. For safety reasons, he requires substituted judgment with some of the tasks. What I love about the business, however, is that Alex is able to complete 75-80% of the tasks independently. He doesn’t operate the meat slicer or make the final decision about doneness. Interacting with the businesses about ordering, preparing the invoices (yet) or managing the accounts, is done by others. He does, however, load the dehydrator trays, load the dehydrator, turn on the machine, put the labels on the packages, package the products, seal them and make the deliveries with his dad or I. When asked about it, he says he is taking Pet Treats to Bosley’s. When asked why, he tells me “Business.” 🙂
Franca: What resources have you used or are currently using for Alex’s business? Were you able to access any job training/coaching or supported employment programs in your community?
Barbara: Alex requires specific and full-time job coaching / support. That isn’t automatically available to him. I did meet with the Career Centre folks in our area and Alex was put on a wait list for services. We were offered the possibility of half-salary for a three-month training contract if we found a place of employment that would take him on. We haven’t pursued that option as yet. Finding employment options has been our responsibility.
Franca: Can you describe specific skills that Alex has learned through his ABA therapy that have aided in his preparation for employment?
Barbara: We feel everything Alex is able to do is the result of his ABA program. This is true for his regular and volunteer employment as well as his micro-business. Some examples would be: Demonstrating compliance / instructional control
- Referencing skills
- Following a checklist
- Learning routines
- Completing tasks
- Responding to reinforcement
- Following a schedule
One thing we have learned on this ABA journey is that Alex is able to learn almost anything that we are able and willing to teach him. Our challenge is finding the folks to support him at whatever he undertakes.
Franca: How much do you feel Alex’s employment has contributed to his community inclusion?
Barbara: Very much so. Much of our focus, in all of the activities Alex is involved in, revolves around Alex being out in the community. David has a saying everyone quotes, “It takes a village to raise a child, but the village needs to know the child.” Home Hardware is in the centre of our little town. Folks in town know Alex from working in the store. His fellow employees like him and watch out for him in town. One of the employees was on our team for a while taking Alex to Community Events on Friday evenings – street dance for the Father’s Day Show ‘n Shine, Sandcastle Contest in a neighbouring town, Thursday night market, Coombs Fair. When Alex delivers the pet treats to the three stores, all the people there know him and make a fuss of him when he does the deliveries. Lots of people now request “Alex’s treats” specifically when they go to Bosley’s. Community Lunches is a well-known program in our community; 20 plus people work there preparing lunches, helping with set up, etc. All of those people know Alex and talk to him when they see him in town. Also, one of the volunteers picks Alex up in the morning and takes him to Quality Foods to pick up breads and pastries for the program. All of the people who work in the bakery know him and say hello when he is in the store. So, yes, all of his employment opportunities have been crucial in helping Alex be included in the community.
Franca: How has all this impacted your lives personally and as a family?
Barbara: Such a huge question! Having a child, even an adult child, with autism defines your life and that of your family. It has demonstrated that our kids, in spite of their significant impairment, can learn and be productive members of society. It doesn’t, however, make worrying about his future any less, knowing that he is completely reliant on others – and we won’t always be here!
Franca: Do you have any “gems of wisdom” for other parents of young adults with autism who are thinking about their son’s or daughter’s future?
Barbara: I think that planning, using something like our “Three Year Goals” plans or the “A Day in the Life of Alex 2016,” will help to keep you focused on the future and working on the skills your son or daughter needs to lead a full, rich life. Planning with set measurable goals and objectives, for us, has been incredibly valuable.
Franca: Thank you so much for sharing, Barbara. To learn more about Alex’s pet treats, go to www.thecaninekitchen.net Barbara McLeod and family live in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada.
Citation for this article:
McLeod, B. (2016). An interview with Barbara McLeod. Science in Autism Treatment, 13(2), 2-5.