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The family who built a cafe just for their autistic son


The Puzzle Cafe in Manila is giving disabled people in the area a chance to succeed in life and break down stigma in the process.

By Aurora Almendral

Jose Canoy was 12 when his family realised that he would no longer do well in school. He has autism, and his family began to understand that, unlike other kids his age, Jose was never going to write an essay on history or memorise the planets in the solar system. His brain just didn’t work that way and he wasn’t being given much support at school.

His mother, Girlie, always saw Jose’s autism as a positive force and says it brought her family closer. When it became clear that Jose was autistic, she wasn’t disappointed, but when she told her friends they looked at her with pity.

“It’s OK, I don’t feel bad, to me he’s the same, just another child I have,” she would tell them.


She was concerned about what she could do for Jose, now 22, to ensure he had security in the future because, at the time, the options for autistic children in the Philippines were limited. The family decided they could open a cafe, and Girlie put the business in the hands of her six children, including Jose, who is a part-owner and waiter for a few afternoons a week. Her plan is that in the future her children will keep the cafe going and continue to support Jose in his work.

Inspired by the positive change they saw in Jose when he began to learn practical skills, they decided to employ others with autism and call it the Puzzle Cafe because the international symbol of autism is a jigsaw piece. This symbol runs throughout the cafe, from the couch cushions to the aprons worn by members of staff. They opened in April, to coincide with the Philippines’ Autism Awareness month.

On the inside it looks like any trendy Manila restaurant with its colourful, modern furniture and patterned, cement floors. On one shelf sit imported marmalades and packaged risottos, and on another are bracelets and key chains made by autistic people.


This means that a lot of the customers who come in don’t realise that the majority of the staff there are autistic, says Ysabella, Jose’s sister who oversees the day-to-day operations of the cafe.

Customers occasionally get upset when they don’t understand why they struggle to communicate with the waiters, but these interactions turn into opportunities to change perceptions about autism, and to highlight what people with autism are capable of doing, she says.

Breaking down the stigma around autism is an important part of what the Canoy family hopes to achieve with the cafe.

Born only two years apart, Jose and Ysabella are close. At a hotel pool during a family vacation when she was six, she says she was struck for the first time by the looks other children and adults gave Jose. He was acting the way he always did, flapping his arms, talking to himself and his toys, and keeping himself busy.

Customers occasionally get upset when they don’t understand why they struggle to communicate with the waiters, but these interactions turn into opportunities to change perceptions about autism, and to highlight what people with autism are capable of doing.

“When people started looking at him that’s when I realised: ‘Oh, that’s because he’s different’,” she says. But the family only ever saw him as Jose, and want to teach people what autistic people are capable of.

Ysabella studied special education in college and helps the staff complete their tasks. Jose finds some of his work in the cafe challenging – and that’s exactly the point.

Ysabella helps him write out the steps for making kalamansi, or Filipino lime juice, and urges him to greet customers properly, shake hands and say “thank you”. Jose reaches for her hand when he’s anxious.

With the help of Josephine de Jesus, a speech therapist who specialises in helping autistic children, the cafe has a set of scripts and cards that break down each activity for the employees – from the distance they should stand as they greet a customer, to every step involved in cooking and plating waffles, complete with photo illustrations.

De Jesus volunteers her time and expertise to the cafe because she sees it as a good venue for autistic people to practise skills outside the repetitive predictability of a clinic. “There are situations that we cannot duplicate in therapy,” she says.

While the Puzzle Cafe was started for Jose, it has resonated with other disabled people and their families. Aside from 10 waiters with autism, they train a couple of young adults with Down’s Syndrome, employ an autistic man as a kitchen assistant, and a young woman with cerebral palsy. They have even received inquiries from corporations in the Philippines about working with them to hire autistic people.


“You realise these people are not given chances so we’re happy to make people aware,” says Girlie, “we’re happy to be able to help.”

As for Jose, when asked how his job at Puzzle Café makes him feel, he rushes to answer: “Happy! I feel Happy!”

Source: BBC

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