A Pancake House customer recently shared on Facebook “a valuable lesson” he learned during a visit to the popular restaurant chain.
Out to grab a late lunch one day, Jose Enrico Libunao and his wife ended up at Pancake House Magallanes branch which is a quick drive from their place. Being familiar with the restaurant, Jose Enrico already knew what he wanted to order, so as soon as they were seated and a waiter, Giancarlo, approached their table, he said, “Isang large spaghetti” while pointing to the item on the menu.
Jose Enrico noticed Giancarlo had no reaction and appeared as if he was still processing what he just said. So he repeated his order, enunciating the words slowly and saying it in a louder voice—“Isang large spaghetti.”
The wife also pointed to her choices and still the server stood motionless, his eyes on the menu. “Parang nag-hang,” Jose Enrico recalled in his Facebook post. Jose Enrico later told ANCX he was already getting annoyed and impatient at this point but tried his best to control his emotions.
Then finally, the server spoke. “Inulit yung mga order namin, pero hindi to confirm, more like nagtatanong,” Jose Enrico recalled. Since he was already starving, he repeated their orders with a more emphatic tone, and was admittedly close to snapping.
Giancarlo again enumerated their choices one by one. “Naulit naman niya ang orders namin ng tama. Pero mabagal. At parang bata yung kausap ko. Iba ang tono niya,” Libunao continued his story. “Basta mahahalata mo na iba talaga. Pero nagawa naman niya yung dapat gawin.”
Thinking that something seemed “off” and noticing a button pin on Giancarlo’s chest that read “A-OK,” Libunao quickly searched for its meaning on Google. That’s when he found out that since 2019, Pancake House and the Autism Society Philippines (ASP) have actually been working together to deliver an “A-OK”—or Autism-OK—experience to its customers, which means the restaurant chain has been employing people with autism. Giancarlo Cruz is its first A-OK employee.
Jose Enrico’s Facebook post drew a lot of attention online. Parents of children in the autism spectrum shared how the note brought them to tears. “Having a daughter with autism made me cry while reading this,” a mother wrote. “Sana talaga dumating yung araw na lahat ng may disability ay mabigyan ng chance na maging normal ang buhay sa tulong ng society.”
A father whose son has autism wished his child would be given a similar opportunity by other employers espousing an inclusive workplace. “Yan ang prayer namin, opportunities for him.”
In the comments section, Mona Magno Veluz, Mighty Magulang to TikTok users and country manager of ASP Autism Works, shared that Pancake House is one of the many partners of ASP in its Autism Works Program. Launched in 1989, ASP is a non-profit organization “dedicated to the well-being of Filipinos who live on autism spectrum and those who care for them.” So far, Pancake House has hired a total of 5 workers on the autism spectrum, Mona offered.
The Autism Works Program started in 2016, said Mona, herself a parent to a child with autism. She used to work in marketing and talent acquisition, and when she became a trustee of ASP, she saw the need to strengthen the group’s adult program. She used her experience in job recruitment to create an economic empowerment program for the group. “Kumbaga merong employment component, merong freelancer component, at merong entrepreneurship component, so yun ang tatlong areas na talagang dinevelop namin,” Mona told ANCX.
They had a difficult time getting the project off the ground because many employers were hesitant to hire candidates with autism. But in 2015, the group started having talks with SM Markets, and the following year, ASP started its pilot program at SM Savemore in SMDC Light Mall in Mandaluyong. Since then, the Autism Works Program has filled almost 300 positions in different industries—the BPO and knowledge industries, real estate, documentation, image annotation, food service, and retail, among others. They now have 52 establishments in 11 provinces that employ persons with autism.
‘Hindi ito charity’
Mona said it was Pancake House, which is under the Max’s Group, that reached out to ASP and expressed its interest in employing persons with autism. At that time, the group’s Teriyaki Boy already had an existing employment program for deaf individuals. “It was a very deliberate campaign,” says the A-OK country manager. “[The Max’s Group] already had an experience hiring persons who are deaf, and designated Pancake House for those with autism.”
After Giancarlo was hired, four other persons with autism were referred by ASP to Pancake House—one was assigned to their Burgos Circle branch in BGC, another to their Rockwell, Makati outlet, one to Harbor View in Pasay City, and the last one to the Vertis North branch in Quezon City.
Mona said candidates go thru a careful selection process before ASP endorses them to employers; not all persons with autism are meant for employment. “They should have the right skills, kasi hindi ito charity,” stressed Mona.
Giancarlo, for instance, is a hotel and restaurant management graduate with a huge passion for food, offered Mona. Before working at Pancake House, he already experienced working in retail at SM Markets when the A-OK program first started.
“[Giancarlo] does have a difficulty in talking. He speaks in English, doesn’t speak Tagalog. Parang bata siya magsalita. Pero he’s very independent,” said Mona. If his parents can’t pick him up from work, he’s capable of taking the public transportation by himself. Mona said the guy is ambitious and hardworking. “He doesn’t slack off. Talagang he’s focused on his work. He wants to have his own restaurant someday.”
Inclusive, sustainable employment
In implementing the A-OK program, Mona said they look first at supply and demand. “So when it comes to the supply, we talk to our job seekers, we talk to our parents, we set their expectations. We already have a system in place.” They have standard HR tests, focusing on interest assessment and emotional well-being, among others.
“On the side of the employers, they also invest time and energy in doing sensitivity and response training, performance management training, also care of ASP,” added Mona. They do boutique hiring—which means they match a candidate with the specific needs of a company. “Kasi we also don’t want it to be like a short-term employment na hiring for the sake of hiring. We want them to have a sustainable employment.”
Usually, companies gearing up for inclusive employment takes about four to six months of preparation before they even start hiring. “We need to make sure that we are aligned. What we don’t want to happen is that employers only hire A-OK applicants to get good press. Red flag din sa akin when they call it CSR,” Mona said. “I want to support employers who really have this organic desire for inclusive employment.”
Mona said A-OK is the embodiment of ASP’s mission for the Philippines. “We want the Philippines to be able to say that we accept, accommodate and appreciate persons on the autism spectrum for who they are, not for how we want them to be,” she shared to ANCX. “We want everyone, every government agency, every company, every school to be okay with people with autism being there.” ASP is ready to guide any company who would like to be ready for inclusive hiring. (To set an exploratory session, email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The Autism Works Program’s country manager also has an advice to the public when dealing with persons in the autism spectrum. “You don't have to take a training in autism to be compassionate of your fellow man. Kapag may nakita kang tao na kakaiba sa iyo, however that difference manifests, you just have to be compassionate. Put yourself in their shoes,” she says. “If we are compassionate, that’s a catch-all for disability and diversity.”
Photos courtesy of Mona Magno Veluz and Autism Society Philippines