Conducted by Franca Pastro, BA, ASAT Board Member and Parent
Franca: With great excitement, I have the opportunity to interview you, Pam, for the first of a series of interviews in our Lifespan section. One of our goals is to provide encouragement to families and professionals by showcasing passionate, dedicated parents like you who are making employment for their children with autism a reality. To start off, please tell us a little bit about your son, Joseph.
Pam: Joseph is fifteen years old, having been diagnosed with severe autism at the age of three. At that time, we set up a home ABA program for him, and ran it as intensively as we could with the money and resources we had available—when Joe was diagnosed we had four children under the age of five. I think we averaged about 30 hours per week for the first few years. As Joe was getting older, we thought it was time to start considering ideas for some kind of employment for him. We felt that being able to make money of his own would provide him with greater opportunities for independence.
Franca: I know that concerns about the future weigh heavily on the minds of parents who are so actively involved in their children’s intervention. How did Joe, you and your family come to choose self-employment as opposed to “traditional” employment—and why Tshirts?
Pam: We had considered different traditional types of employment, and had listened to other parents speak about what their children had done as adults, but trying to think of a particular job that would work for Joseph was difficult. As he is now, I can’t see Joseph being happy in a typical occupation. I considered ideas that other people talk about, such as brick laying, because he is so orderly. He likes to organize things, but for the most part only when it fits his personal wishes. It is not always easy for him to understand when it is a task set by someone else— especially if the task changes regularly.
When parents have had success with employment situations, they certainly are worth listening to—we don’t have to reinvent the wheel! On one occasion, a mother shared something that stuck with me—she said, in essence, to find something that works for your child, that he is good at and enjoys doing, and then find a way for him to make money at it.
Because Joseph loves and is able to draw pictures that people find interesting, we thought: “How about a business with his designs featured on T-shirts?” So we decided to try the self-employment option and see how that worked out for him.
Franca: What a great idea! Now, can you share with us how this initial idea evolved into “BroJoe,” the business?
Pam: Around June 2014, we decided to go for it! Joe drew a picture, I found a print shop that would work with us, and away we went. The shirt was of a good quality, and the print very colourful and eye catching – the whole thing turned out great! We didn’t make a large quantity, as we wanted to see how the whole system worked without spending too much money.
One of the many things we learned through the process of making the shirts is that if the picture is in a Vector based file—and not just drawn on paper —it would save time and money during the set up. We hired an amazing Behavior Interventionist (BI), Amanda, to teach Joe how to draw in a Vector file. This is not an easy concept to learn, however because Amanda has a very strong background in ABA, she conducted her sessions in a systematic way, providing Joe lots of reinforcement as Joe was learning new skills. The beginning was a little challenging, but once Joe figured out what he could do with the end result, he loved it! This was a real eye-opening experience for us. I have to say, I don’t think I have ever seen Joe so interested and engaged in anything.
The next step was to register Joe’s business. The registering part was easy; the hard part was trying to figure out what umbrella to put the business under—sole proprietorship, partnership or limited company—and the implications for Joe as well as tax considerations were all very confusing. We made our decision, did a name search, chose a name and moved forward.
In December 2014, I received an email from Autism Support Network (ASN), a non-profit parent-run organization active in our area, stating that they were going to have a Christmas party and would be selling some goods with proceeds going to ASN. I contacted Dione Costanzo, ASN Director, to ask if they would consider selling Joe’s T-shirts at the party, with the commitment to donate some of the profits to their group. Dione agreed to it, and the sale was very successful.
A few weeks later, Dione contacted me with the news she had been approached by three university students who wanted to support autism in some way for their final business project, T2Unlock. The students thought it would be a great idea to sell Joe’s T-shirts and she said they would welcome Joe’s involvement. We were delighted about the opportunity: Joe took the students’ ideas, turned them into creative drawings, and we ended up with a very saleable product. The students then successfully sold the T-shirts, bringing awareness to autism, ASN and also of course to Joe’s fledgling T-shirt business!
We then decided that we needed a way to promote Joe’s business ourselves, so we created a Facebook page called “BroJoeCo” with Amanda’s help. Amanda is teaching me how to monitor and post things to the site – this is a new experience for me! As well, she is showing me how to read the data to see what people are interested in or not. Our next step will be to set up a format so that people can view and purchase the T-shirts directly through the Facebook site. Now, Joe has many Facebook followers, and people talking about him and his designs. This, in turn, could lead to a significant increase in social interaction for him and possibly opportunities to develop new friendships. We have also created some business cards and postcards to hand out if we are able to take our shirts to fairs and events this coming summer, which is our plan.
Franca: This is truly an exciting story. How would you describe Joe’s take on his BroJoe T-shirt business?
Pam: Joe has not had a lot of input into the “business” side itself, in a traditional way, as comprehension and ability to express his thoughts are at times challenging for him. I do know that he likes creating T-shirts because he tells me he wants to make more. When he draws things now, it is with the intention of putting it on a T-shirt. Joe enjoys seeing people wearing his shirts and is eager to come up with additional designs. I told him that we would have to sell all of the shirts before we could produce new ones. So one day I found the remainder of the shirts in the garbage can! I laughed as I thought this was very clever; if the shirts were gone, Joe obviously figured out, he could make more. Seeing how happy Joseph is in the creation process is what motivates all of us to want to build his business. Like many of us, Joe has found a job that not only pays him, but also one he greatly enjoys.
Franca: What resources have you used and are you currently using for Joe’s business? Have you heard of job training/coaching or supported employment programs in your community?
Pam: I found very few, if any, resources to help us set up the business, and I have not heard of employment programs for persons with special needs in our area. I don’t feel I have access to tools to help Joe with his employment skills. Resources are scarce for teenagers and adults with autism, and even scarcer for creating entrepreneurial employment opportunities. Equally frustrating is the lack of information sharing and difficulty in accessing the few programs available out there. What I think would have made it easier would have been a better system of pre-vocational and vocational education and training for children, teens and young adults: a system that recognizes the benefits of ABA for individuals of all ages, maintains adequate financial support past the age of six, and provides a place where a family can know that all of the staff were qualified under the same ABA training, held to the same standards, and professionally supervised. In other words, parents should not have to weed through all the garbage out there to obtain what should be readily available and effective. Families should be able to have access to quality trained providers – and lots of them!
Franca: Looking back, did you ever expect your son to be able to consider such an enterprise?
Pam: I knew he could do something. Even as challenged as Joe is, he is still very smart in many ways; he just thinks differently. Things important to him are not necessarily important to typically developing individuals. Once you can really understand that concept, you can see the potential in all people with autism. It doesn’t mean that it’s not still frustrating, as we do live in a typical world and need to find a way to participate and adapt to it, whether we want to or not.
My thoughts are that, with the direction we have gone, a possibility in the future for Joe could be the field of animation. I think he would find it fascinating if he could make his characters move about—I have discussed this with Amanda, and she is looking into ideas. I have a daughter who is interested in animation as well, so it would be great if they could work together.
Regardless, we have learned so much and Joe has really enjoyed seeing people wear his designs. It shows us that he has the ability to do something really great and different.
Franca: Do you have any advice for other parents of young adults with autism who are thinking about their future?
Pam: I have been very blessed to meet some amazing people on this journey: our Lovaas replica site trained ABA Consultant, Michele Shilvock, our many BIs and all the many wonderful other parents who were willing to share their stories, experiences and friendship. ABA has been huge in Joe’s ability “to be Joe” and to develop to his full potential.
I would like to offer one bit of advice—something from Shelley Davis, guest speaker at the very first FEAT of BC(Families for Early Autism Treatment of British Columbia) conference I attended. At that time, Joe had not yet been diagnosed, but I wanted to know what ABA was all about. What Shelley said that was impactful was, “Get them out there!” — meaning, get your kid out into society; they can’t learn to be a part of it if they are not in it. Much of what we have done for our children may have begun at a therapy table, but the ultimate goal is generalization of important skills to real world settings – otherwise, what’s the point?
Franca: Can you describe specific skills that Joe has learned through his ABA training that have helped “Joe’s ability to be Joe” as you mentioned earlier?
Pam: We were fortunate to have found an evidence based method of teaching for Joe at a young age and have seen how it has benefited his quality of life at school, with peers, in his home, with his family, his community and now with his employment. He has learned to read at a basic level and develop some math skills. He is able to go places with friends, share and participate —he has a great personality. Communication is still challenging for him, but because of behavioral therapy, it has improved significantly. ABA has taught him the skills to participate in his community and school, such as the ability to take turns, wait and transition. He is learning to control his verbal self-stimulatory behaviors, so he is less distracted and can pay attention. All of these skills that he has acquired through behavioral programming have been crucial in his path towards employment potential.
What is frustrating, though, is that I have had to direct Joe’s instruction on my own, rather than being able to access a centre-based program with trained individuals already in place. I had to create the team much like I did when Joe was first diagnosed at three, except this time his team is focused on employment.
With much work on my part as a coordinator, along with a team of individuals skilled in the principles of behavior analysis, Joseph has been able to turn an interest into a form of employment. His is a success story which I hope will encourage other families with individuals on the autism spectrum.
Franca: Thank you, Pam, for sharing your experiences regarding Joe’s business.
Pamela Browne is the mother of four children ranging from 13 to 16 – two are identical twins and her middle son, Joseph, has the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Pam has been coordinating an applied behavior Analysis (ABA) program for the last 12 years. Pam, the kids, and her husband live in Langley, British Columbia, Canada.
To learn more about BroJoe: https://www.facebook.com/Brojoeco
Citation for this article:
Pastro, F. (2015). Perspectives: Interview with Pam Browne. Science in Autism Treatment, 12(3), 24-27.