The next time you are cursing the assembly instructions for an IKEA desk or bookshelf, you will wish you were living in Edmonton.Residents in the Alberta capital can hire Brad Fremmerlid, a 24-year-old man with severe autism who can build anything. Although he doesn’t read or speak, Fremmerlid has an amazing ability to understand the most complex diagrams, blueprints and pictorial instructions. And for a small fee — currently about $20 — he will build any piece of furniture in your home.
“Everyone tells us we should be charging more, but we’re not really looking for money,” said his father, Mark Fremmerlid, an air ambulance pilot, who launched the business for his son this month. “We just want him to have something meaningful to do.
“It’s just started, but it seems to be so good for him to go to someone’s place and have a problem to solve,” he said in a telephone interview this week.
Since Brad was a preschooler, his father has been bringing home models, Lego kits and other toys for Brad to build “as therapy for his mind.” He figures Brad has assembled more than 2,000 objects since then.
The boy didn’t show an interest at first, noted Mark, who stresses his son isn’t an “autistic savant.”
“I just told him he had to build it and he did. Gradually, he took more and more interest in doing it, especially if it was something different or interesting.”
Moving to furniture assembly seemed like a logical transition.
“It just didn’t seem like a good solution to be always buying things for him to put together,” said Mark, who with his wife Debbie has three other children in their 20s.
“It’s much better if he actually builds somebody else’s project. It’s just so much more practical.”
So far, the business — Made by Brad — has had eight clients, who have asked the young man to assemble everything from a shower caddy to a filing cabinet.
Mark books appointments through the company’s website. Brad communicates through rudimentary hand signs. But a support worker, who drives him to the jobs, assists with any questions a client may have.
Edmonton homemaker Elzbeita Broz hired Brad on Wednesday to build her two young boys an “Ultimate Chef’s Kitchen” that she bought from HomeSense after Christmas.
The wooden play kitchen had been sitting in a box in the family’s hallway for about three weeks waiting to be put together by her husband Rafal, who was “not very excited about it,” Broz said in a telephone interview.
After reading a local newspaper article about Brad’s new business, Broz called to make an appointment.
“When we opened the box this morning before Brad came and I saw how many small pieces there were, I was a little bit afraid it would be too challenging for him,” Broz admitted. “But he had no trouble. It was amazing.”
With the parts spread out on Broz’s living room floor, Brad studied the instructions for several minutes and then started to work. What would have taken her husband three days took Brad three hours, Broz said.
“He was very focused on the job. He didn’t need to look at the instructions as he worked,” she said. “When he was finished, you could see he was very happy and proud of himself, and so were we. He almost did a happy dance.”
Broz, who had no experience with autism before she met Brad, insisted on paying him double what he charged, as his work was “certainly worth it and I don’t see why I should pay any less.”
“People with disabilities are often not recognized and their talents are not discovered or appreciated,” she said. “Showcasing Brad’s talents is a great opportunity to spread awareness.”
There are few options for young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities after they become too old for public school. The education system isn’t good at preparing them for the workforce and employers aren’t usually equipped to hire them. Many families struggle to find any meaningful activities for their autistic children as they move through adolescence into adulthood.
“Ten years ago we were in crisis,” said Mark, recalling how Brad would punch holes in the drywall and smash windows when he was not occupied. After a rocky transition into group home care at age 15 that included a heavily sedated week in hospital, Brad entered a special school program where he began to thrive, Mark said. There was another roadblock when the teen turned 20 and could no longer attend school.
But after a “very sad and lonely year for Brad,” his family was able to convince provincial funding officials to admit him to a day program.
Most people “don’t just stay home and try to make up activities,” Mark said. “It doesn’t work.”
Even in the day program, however, support workers have struggled to come up with new and challenging things for Brad to do. Starting the assembly business seemed a natural solution.
“He becomes so much more normal when he is tackling these (assembly) problems and going out to different places and meeting different people,” Mark said. “The best therapy seems to be: Give him something different to do.”
Carol Hacker of JVS Toronto, which specializes in job-readiness training for the hard-to-employ, says focusing on talents and on-the-job support can make all the difference for people with disabilities.
“A lot of credit goes to the family for recognizing what Brad’s strengths were and then building on that,” said Hacker, the agency’s disability services director. “And his ability to meet customer needs is wonderful.”
“This is also about inclusion and community integration and a sense of acceptance.”
A decade ago, Danish entrepreneur Thorkil Sonne created a company that hires and trains young people with autism to become IT consultants, in the hope that his own autistic son, now a teenager, may one day find work.
Sonne’s company, Specialisterne, which in Danish means “specialist,” is now operating in 11 countries, including Canada, where it opened a Toronto headquarters last fall.
In Edmonton, Mark Fremmerlid hopes his son’s story will be an inspiration to other families with autistic children and will show employers and the broader community how they can help.
“I just hate to see people wasting away in group homes,” he said. “It takes a huge amount of teamwork, effort and help to pull it off, but it ends up costing less and enhances everybody’s life.”