“Good afternoon. Welcome to Puzzle Café!” said 20-year-old Jose Canoy when I entered the door.
“Table for one, please,” I said.
Jose’s older sister, Ciab, beamed next to him. When he missed his cue, the 22-year-old preschool teacher assisted her brother. “What will you say, Jose?”
“Here is your menu. Please write down your order here,” he said, and handed me the menu, pen, and clipboard where I could tick my orders.
Jose was practicing his lines all day. He is one of six siblings, and was diagnosed with low functioning autism when he was a child. His family opened Puzzle Gourmet Store and Café a few weeks ago. “We drew inspiration from our very own Jose to create a living example of how autism and other disabilities should be an opportunity for everybody to educate, accept, and understand,” Ciab said. “A lack of understanding ultimately makes it difficult for people diagnosed with autism to ‘fit’ in society.”
More than 56 million people in the United States alone have some type of disability. In the Philippines, there is an estimated one million cases of autism. There is a lack of medical access for autism and mental health, but there has been an increase in information and advocacy .
I browsed through the menu and laughed at the copywriting sprinkled with Filipino puns, such as “Julius Caesar” salad and “Parokya ni Egg-gar,” an egg salad sandwich named after local band Parokya ni Edgar.
“I came up with those names!” said Carts, also known as DJ Toons, Jose’s older brother who was browsing through songs in his MacBook. Running the café is a family effort. Outside, Toons’ best friend and graphic designer Edric dela Rosa worked on the window art, while the eldest Canoy sibling, Ponch, shuffled back and forth from C’est Ça Giftworks, their gift shop next door. Ponch’s parents and his wife entertained customers, mostly friends and relatives of their special-needs team.
While I enjoyed my lunch—Asian Persuasion salad and apple pie waffles with a cup of dark roast, 20-year-old Anna Gavino entered the door. Her father dropped her off for her two-hour shift. A high functioning autistic, Anna is one of Puzzle’s eight differently-abled members aged 15-30. “I memorized my lines,” she told Teacher Ciab before asking Toons to play her favorite song.
Unlike Jose, Anna is more energetic. She danced to “MMMBop” by Hanson while Jose stayed at the back, playing with his iPad. “He isn’t exactly the most sociable person,” Ciab said, but working in Puzzle has slowly changed Jose. “He comes to work with a smile on his face now. He watches [movies] on his iPad when he isn’t busy around the café, but when he is called, he puts down his iPad right away.”
Puzzle isn’t the first establishment in the Philippines to employ differently-abled people, but they are the first to focus on autism awareness and understanding. Inside the café, there are shelves of Puzzle gifts and autism awareness merchandise, such as hand-painted greeting cards made by the students of Independent Living Learning Center. Proceeds of the gift sales go to Puzzle’s chosen beneficiaries, such as the Autism Society of the Philippines.
“It is only in sparking awareness and shifting perspectives that we will be able to provide a significant medium in showing how autism isn’t really puzzling, but a symbol of cheerful hope,” Toons said.
“We’ve come a long way [since] Jose’s first day at work,” said Ciab. “As a manager, I am impressed. As a sister, I am so incredibly proud. I wish I could explain to him just how much.”
The Canoy siblings also explained how, more than the business aspect of the café, they established Puzzle to be the kind of community they want Jose to be surrounded by—where he is understood, cared for, and celebrated not just for his autism, but who he is in spite of it.
As an advocate of mental health awareness, my first visit to Puzzle Café gave me a renewed sense of hope. There’s so much love and understanding from both the management and their supporters, and I trust that this open-mindedness will spread to other customers who drop by. And of course, their apple pie waffles and Asian fusion dishes are worth coming back to.