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How One Cafe Is Changing the Way People in the Philippines See Autism

Jose Canoy had difficulties adjusting to the routine of his new job at Puzzle Cafe in Quezon City, Philippines. Jose, who has autism, didn’t like his clothes getting dirty or food that had strong smells, and he had trouble responding to customers who asked questions that weren’t part of the script he was following, Ysabella Canoy, Jose’s sister, told The Mighty in an email.

Jose Canoy standing outside of the cafe during construction. Via Ysabella Canoy.

But nine months later, Jose, 21, successfully maneuvers the store’s waffle maker, coffee machine and deep fryer and regularly has conversations with customers. He’s thriving at his family’s business, which opened in December 2014.

Last year as Jose’s three siblings began to start planning their futures, the Canoys realized they needed to help Jose plan his too. They wanted him to be happy at his job and work with people who were sensitive to his needs. So, the Canoys opened Puzzle Cafe, and now they have nine employees with special needs — eight employees have autism and one has Down syndrome.

The outside of Puzzle Cafe. Via Ysabella Canoy.

“We want to be a community where families of kids and adults with special needs can feel that they are understood and prioritized,” Ysabella, 23, told The Mighty. “A place where they don’t have to be worried about being kicked out or stared at. At the same time, we want to be a community where individuals with special needs can work and be given a chance to show what they are capable of, a place where they can prepare themselves for work in bigger companies, a place where they will be treated just like anybody else.”

While the Canoys had no experience in the restaurant business, the entire family has pitched in to help grow their business. Ysabella quit her job as a preschool teacher to work full-time handling the inquiries and training of the cafe’s employees. Their mom handles the menu and grocery shopping while their dad handles all the driving. Another one of Jose’s sisters and his sister-in-law work as waitresses and grocery runners. Jose and his brother also helped with construction.

Some of the employees at Puzzle Cafe. Via Ysabella Canoy.

While Puzzle Cafe has transformed the Canoys’ lives, it’s also having an impact on customers. Ysabella says her family often has to explain Jose’s autism to strangers in the Philippines at places like the airport, mall and local businesses. Now, the cafe initiates conversations about disabilities.

“We have such a long way to go,” Ysabella told The Mighty. “We’re learning every single day, but I know that opening our doors to individuals with special needs and their families has been the best decision we’ve made.”