Express Yourself

A viral video helps launch an autistic man’s new business.

Anthony Barrett is finishing a game of Math Blaster on the computer in his bedroom – it’s a big part of his morning. He greets me at the door, sort of, because his mom asked him to, then he quickly retreats. The game routine is important to him – he has a thing for numbers.

I join Anthony’s mom, Deborah Barrett, and Mike Hamm at the kitchen table. Each has a mug, and the two chat easily. Weak sunlight suffuses the kitchen, its glass bricks and lemony paint amplify it, tricking you into thinking
it’s nicer outside than it really is. At the table, Deborah and Mike are talking about what Mike is to Anthony.

“I usually say something like ‘private support worker,’ but that’s not exactly it,” says Mike. He is 26, with a tidy, ginger beard and a nose that turns up slightly, making him look young despite the facial hair – a little bit like Dominic Monaghan in The Lord of the Rings.

“No,” Deborah says. “There’s an element of condescension to the notion of ‘support.'”

Hamm nods. “And ‘assistant’ isn’t really it, either.”

“I like ‘community access worker,'” Deborah says. “That really is what you do; you allow Anthony to access the community more effectively.”

Anthony, 24, has classical autism, the hallmarks of which are impaired communication and social skills, and narrow or limited interests. Anthony doesn’t look you directly in the eye, at least not often, nor for long. His fine and gross motor skills are not finely tuned. He makes odd vocalizations that can unnerve people. He may or may not answer questions or respond to instructions. He loves going to new places, Deborah says, and he’ll do an exploratory circuit of a space to check things out. She demonstrates, pacing slowly around her kitchen island. A quarter-century of living with Anthony has made her able to mimic the way he moves. Deborah is 60, attractive and polished in a dark turtleneck and conservative scarf. She is as eloquent as Anthony is not.

Hamm spends his workday with Anthony, funded by a Government of Alberta program called Persons with Developmental Disabilities. He reminds Anthony to take care of his things, helps him shave, and does some of the fine-motor stuff that flummoxes Anthony, like tying his trunks when the two go swimming. And, he takes Anthony to classes at NorQuest College.

The Delivery Business

But lately it’s the delivery business, Anthony at Your Service, that’s keeping them busy. It was Deborah’s idea, a means to broaden Anthony’s horizons, and a way to let the rest of us get to know Anthony – if just in short bursts.

“And maybe we’ll all get more comfortable,” she says. It’s scary for her, thinking about Anthony’s future. Much of the social network and structure he had as an autistic child disappeared when he finished school. There are no similar programs for an autistic adult, and Anthony can’t create that structure for himself. Deborah’s doing what she can to create opportunities and a social net for him.

But it was Mike who brought her delivery business idea to life with a YouTube video that went viral when he posted it in August. Using an iPhone, Mike filmed Anthony during a typical week, and later edited it, narrating his friend’s characteristics and strengths and inviting businesses in Edmonton to hire Anthony at Your Service for deliveries. A few weeks after release, the clip had more than 153,000 views. The duo now has a half-dozen regular clients, plus a few that call for occasional deliveries, averaging about three deliveries a day.

The pair charges for deliveries on a sliding scale, about $20 for a one-off and less for regular clients. “But we definitely negotiate,” Mike says. The only business expense is Mike’s mileage, which he bills back to the company; all remaining profits go to Anthony.

Friends First

Right now, Anthony and Mike are two young guys, making deliveries in Mike’s car. 

Whatever else Mike is to Anthony, he is, first, his friend. While Deborah doesn’t expect Mike will be in the PDD-funded position forever, Mike plans to stay part of Anthony’s life, one way or another. They clearly like each other, even though it might be difficult for Anthony to vocalize it.

“We figure it out,” Mike says, and he turns to Anthony and sings, “Anthony, can you sing for me, 400?”

“Four hundred,” Anthony replies. Dark-haired and bespeckled, he looks professorial, his bearing serious.

“Anthony, do you want to play that game where you guess the day of the week someone was born on?” Mike asks. Then he looks in the rear-view mirror and nods to me. For a moment I am mortified, like I’m participating in some kind of parlour trick at Anthony’s expense. But in the front seat, Anthony has half turned, expectant. So I tell him my birth date and ask him on what day of the week I was born.

The briefest pause, and Anthony looks back, his eyes flickering to meet mine. “Tuesday,” he says. I punch it into my phone and the Internet tells me he’s right. But beyond that, it dawns on me that the birthday game isn’t a parlour trick, it’s a way Anthony interacts.

We pull up in front of Brown & Hone Orthodontic Lab. The owners saw Mike’s Anthony at Your Service clip and became one the business’ first regular clients. Mike and Anthony stop here twice a week to pick up packages and Mike mentions they’ve been invited to a Brown & Hone staff party at Galaxyland.

Maybe Deborah and Mike’s gambit will work out beautifully.

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