Perhaps the best behavioral therapy for someone on the spectrum is community support and a summer job.
For years we’ve been customers at the White Bird Emporium, formerly the Sangre Home Decor, in Westcliffe. Over the years Harrison has encountered various schoolmates working there. Often he’s blurted, “When do I get to work here?”
Apparently new owner Carla Brooks heard him. Actually, it would be difficult not to. But the thing about Carla was she really did hear him and was willing to take a risk. Toward the end of the school year we stopped in for coffee and she asked him, “Hey, you want a summer job?”
The out-of-the-blue question caught me by surprise, the same way when Coach Jack Swartz asked him at the end of fifth grade if he wanted to be on the middle-school cross-country team. That experience in running led to an entirely new identity for Harrison and a journey that is still providing expansion. This one would prove to as well.
Before I’d had time to process this offer he’d accepted the job. He started a couple weeks after school let out for the summer break.
The entire endeavor has been nothing but a growth experience for him. Me too. From the responsibility of getting to work on time and practicing good hygiene, to the challenge of interacting and dealing with customers, to dealing with unforeseen on-the-job problems that can quickly arise.
Along this path he has learned to scoop ice cream, make milk shakes and smoothies, competently operate an espresso machine, ring up customers and make correct change. He’s cleaned counters and swept floors. He’s lugged dozens of three-gallon tubs of ice cream into the store when the delivery arrives.
At last count, between wages and tips he’s banked nearly $600 — more than I ever saved when I was his age but then you could have bought a car with that much then. However, the money has been just a side-benefit for him.
As is to be expected, there have been some bumps in the rocky road. Part of his spectrum is a Tourette’s Syndrome component and he’s blurted out inappropriate things a couple times. And he’s gotten frustrated in a few situations, usually when it’s not busy enough to keep him focused. He’s had some brief meltdowns. But on the whole, the job has been an amazing growth experience. I often hang out in the corner working on my laptop in case there’s a real problem, but recently he has been more independent and I’ve even left him on his own for periods of time.
One day a group of customers came in and ordered ice cream cones. When he pulled out the glass cone drawer the cones flew out and broke on the floor. I waited for the tantrum but it never materialized. Instead he said, “Excuse me,” and went to a back room.
When he returned with a box of cones he told the customers, “Sorry for the inconvenience.” Then he took their orders and scooped out their ice cream. As a co-worker rang up their bill he got a broom and cleaned up the mess.
I sat there asking myself: “Who is this kid?”
Another great reflection was when his second-grade teacher Leanne came in with her kids for ice cream. I could not help but remember several years ago when we encountered her at the local farmers market and he flew into an epic tantrum simply because she was out of context for him there. This episode is actually detailed in my book, Full Tilt Boogie. Years later here he was at his job dishing up ice cream for her and her kids. I could not help but reflect on his personal growth between then and now.
Along the way there have been countless people taking risks to further Harrison’s advancement. So many teachers, administrators, therapists, coaches, referees, and others who have taken the jump for no other good reason than an expression of their own humanity. I thank them all, and particularly Carla for providing him this opportunity.