Melissa Gelb Wish is a NJ Licensed Social Worker with Employment Specialist Certifications from the Hunter College School of Social Work and the Boggs Center for Developmental Disabilities at Rutgers University. After receiving her social work degree, she spent eleven years in executive recruiting and career counseling. She currently works with special needs adolescents and adults on social skills and job training/coaching.
Below, Justin Canha coaches Melissa in a spirited game of Pictionary.
BJS: How were you first introduced to Justin and his family?
MW: On the front page of the Sunday New York Times! It was the summer of 2011 and I had just moved to Montclair from Brooklyn and was focused on getting my 4 year old son set up with local services (he is on the spectrum). When I read Amy Harmon’s article, I knew I had to connect with the Canha family as soon as possible. I was so moved by Justin’s story and artistic talent, that I was determined to work with him and help him however I could.
I also identified with Justin’s parents, who, like all parents of special needs children, worry about and hyper focus on their child’s path and potential for independence. Part of it is the fear of what will happen when you are no longer here to manage your child’s life and advocate for them, and part of it is helping your child achieve their own goals and vision for the future…giving them the confidence and skills to create and lead a full and fulfilling life, made up of work, friends, independent living, love, community- what we want for all of our children….but many of these skills don’t come easily or naturally for people on the spectrum.
BJS: Describe the ins and outs of being Justin’s business manager, and what inspired you to take on this role?
MW: It’s hard to call it work, because I consider Justin my friend first and we spend so much time laughing together! The “Business Manager” role just happened organically as I spent more time with Justin and his family. I wasn’t hired on in a traditional way – it’s probably more appropriate to say Business Partner than Manager, because truly, we are a team.
In terms of the business, I make connections for Justin with parents and event planners as well as handling the logistics and scheduling so that Justin can focus on his real talents – creating art and relating to children. At birthday parties, Justin and I arrive with markers, spin art paper and spin art frames. He then will draws every imaginable cartoon character with incredible speed and accuracy. The children request their favorite character and he’ll draw it, sign the drawing and put it in a frame for them. The result is that he gets mobbed by dozens of kids, which he loves! Justin also decorates cakes, cupcakes and customized goody bag items such as coloring books, place mats, mugs, t-shirts, and pretty much anything that is needed for the typical party.
In addition to his party business, I coach Justin on other job sites as well as run his Etsy.com children’s wall art business and his professional Facebook page. More recently we have begun volunteering our time and materials at children’s hospitals and non-profits focused on helping children.
BJS: What are some of Justin’s strengths that in your opinion will help him gain his goal of independence?
MW: Justin is the hardest and most creative worker I’ve ever met. He is incredibly driven and focused on doing the best job he can at every task or project assigned to him. He is motivated by making supervisors, customers and students happy. He has a great sense of humor, which is so crucial in connecting with others. Justin is the type of employee that you have to tell to go home at the end of the day, otherwise he will just keep going like the Energizer Bunny!
BJS: Clearly Justin has an immense amount of family and professional support helping him achieve his goals. What about all the kids coming of age who don’t have the resources that Justin enjoys? Is it realistic to expect that they will be able to reach their aspirations as well or are we giving the next generation false hope by communicating that they can “go far” in life when really, the cards are stacked against them?
MW: The truth is that it does take a village and not everyone has the resources or family support that Justin does. That’s why we also need more and stronger public programs in place. Justin’s mother, Maria Teresa, is the CEO of his life and manages a large team of support people, including me. She handles the schedules, strategy, needs analysis, negotiation etc. Her whole life is centered around Justin progressing and achieving independence. Not every mother has the time, resources or skills to do what Maria Teresa does on a daily basis. As a mother of a son who is also on the spectrum, she is both my role model and mentor. She does all this and yet she still manages to keep in shape, have a strong marriage, devoted friends, great sense of humor, positive attitude and always greets you with a big hug and a smile on her face. She is my hero!
BJS: Have you seen a shift in how the public perceives autism in the past 5 years?
MW: People seem to be more aware that autism is a true spectrum disorder with regards to language/communication, sensory issues, repetitive behaviors, narrow range of interests and motor planning/coordination issues. The “spectrum” has a very wide span. On one side you have a person who may just be perceived as persistently socially awkward with some debate about their condition. The other end is the non verbal with significant motor planning and sensory issues. Each individual on the spectrum is different and needs a customized approach and not every method of intervention works for every child.
BJS: Do you think we are on the right track in terms of autism awareness and how we are encouraged to talk and think about autism?
MW: I think there should be more focus on the gifts that autism can bring and efforts to find each child’s special interests and talents. So often, we only see children on the spectrum through a prism of disability. We need “dis” disabilities and highlight abilities. That helps the child develop confidence and also changes how you see your own child. One thing I’ve learned through working with clients as well as my own son, is never to underestimate them. I’ve found that they each have a brilliance that surpasses my abilities as a “neurotypical”!
BJS: What is your overall philosophy as a parent, i.e., how would you encourage other parents with children on the spectrum?
MW: We need to change the conversation and empower our children to wear autism as a badge of honor and strength, not view it as a disability. A friend of mine on the spectrum has two children who are also on the spectrum. Early on, she decided to talk about autism with her kids in a very unique way. She explained to them that autism was a special condition that gave people super-powers. Because of this, some things in life will come incredibly easy. Other things will be challenging, but get better with practice.
BJS: In the words of Spider Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.”