How does an autistic child discover joy from work?
About two weeks ago, I received a picture sent from an unknown phone number. The picture depicted a hand holding two packets of snacks high up, next to a note I wrote and pasted on the vending machine — “Party Snacks at $2 only. We just wanted to bring you more smiles!” These party snacks were specially packed by Cairn to sell snacks in bundle at a discounted price to the residents.
Beneath that picture, the sender wrote me an encouraging message, “Keep up the good work!! The packs really brought more smiles to my family.”
I was moved. A customer reciprocated the efforts that we have put in and wrote us a feedback.
Excitedly, I shared the customer’s feedback with my family – “People appreciate what we are doing.”
I praised my sixteen-year old son, Cairn, who has been running the snacks machine since three months ago, “You are doing a great job! Your work brings smiles to others.”
Cairn grinned at my compliments, but it was unclear to me how much an autistic boy can comprehend the significance. Cairn understands well that his job is to refill snacks and collect money. But does he know the higher purpose, that is, to bring convenience and joy to others?
I hope my son discovers the joy of working. But it seemed like a tall order to explain that to an autistic person with limited verbal ability.
An Opportunity To See A Happy Customer
Shortly, another learning opportunity arose when Cairn and I chanced upon a little boy in orange pyjamas one evening. Pointing at a snicker bar in the vending machine, the boy pleaded repeatedly to his care-giver and domestic helper, “Aunty, I want that chocolate!”
I pulled Cairn aside and said, “Don’t go too near. Let your customer buy first.”
Cairn watched on quietly as the domestic helper pocketed out some coins and inserted into the machine. The boy picked up a bar of chocolate in jubilation. I asked Cairn, “What did the boy buy?”
“Snicker!” A quick and confident reply ensued.
“And how does the boy feel?” I asked.
Cairn smiled and replied, “The boy feels happy!”
“Why?” I probed further.
“The boy feels happy because he eats chocolate!” Cairn explained. The boy had un-wrapped his snicker and was munching away happily!
I nodded approvingly, “Yes, you are right.” I continued, “You see? You make people happy by refilling the snacks for them. Good job!”
Cairn’s grin grew wider.
A Close Encounter With A Customer
Two days ago, a man in his thirties approached us most unexpectedly as when we were about to refill the machine. He said, “I wanted to tell you…”
I was half-expecting him to say something like “the snacks did not drop the previous time I bought”. I hear that kind of complaint occasionally.
That kind of problems were largely solved after I provided my mobile number as the customer service hotline on the machine. I remembered how pleasantly surprised a sweet-looking lady was to find her problem solved shortly after she texted me at night.
Instead, the man said,“… You are doing a great job!”
Surprised, I could only reply with a “Thank you” and became tongue-tied. Receiving compliments from customers in text messages is nothing new, but it felt different hearing such encouraging words in person.
The man said with a chuckle, “You kept improving the selection of snacks. I really liked that Hainanese Chicken Rice Mamee Noodle you recommended in the machine! The taste is so authentic that I took a picture and shared with my friends.”
I said “Thank you” profusely. The man probably thought that I was not good with words, as he had no idea the emotion stirring in me. Cairn probably felt it. He was standing next to me, grinning even wider than ever. He couldn’t say in words but he understood.
Gradually, Cairn is getting the idea that he is doing a happy business. It brings great joy to my family to see the excitement on his face as Carin collects and count his daily earnings, though meagre at this stage. Cairn would meticulously stacks the coins and adds up the sum.
Thoughts on moving forward
I have received several queries about setting up the vending business.
Let me be upfront, it costs me only SGD$5000 to get started, that’s all. You may spend more, up to SGD$10K if you chose newer and more sophisticated models of vending machine. The real challenge is not the money involved, but the real work behind — the business set-up, the types of machine, the sourcing of merchandise, the placement of machine, and the methods to improve sales and so forth. All that takes a lot of time and energy, and I can imagine people giving up easily. But looking at how Cairn has flourished, it is worth all the effort I have put in.
What I need to do next is to improve the earning yield of the vending machine and increase the number of machines for my son. One day, I hope Cairn can operate multiple machines in the neighbourhood and earn his own keep. It is important that my son, like any other person in the society, leads a productive and fulfilling life.
I hope to help others too. That’s why I had shared the five principles of job-creation in the previous post. Helping more families will spur me to look out for more locations, more machines and create more job opportunities for the disadvantaged ones in the society is a meaningful thing to do. And I envision that it would be beneficial for Cairn and other children in disadvantaged situations to form a closely-knitted network where families help each other to improve their children’s livelihood. And this is where I can truly apply my coaching skills and know-how as an education consultant.
So, if you are asking me questions on behalf of a friend with a child with disabilities, get your friend to contact me directly. But if you are asking just out of personal interest, please be patient to read and learn more from my blogs.
With the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the world now, we are grateful to all the personnel working tirelessly at the front line to keep us safe. For me, I stay focus on simple things that brings joy to me and my family. I hope you are doing the same too. Take good care, everyone! For ourselves and others!
William W K Tan
28 March 2020