One of the subjects that haunt many parents with children who have been diagnosed with autism or with any special circumstance, is the future. Questions like, who will take care of my child when I’m gone? Will they ever be able to live independently? Will they find an occupation or hobby that gives them a sense of self-worth?
These are questions that Fullerton, California based store owner Bob Cummins had to ask himself when his daughter, Lauren, was diagnosed with autism at the age of seventeen. I met Bob and Lauren just by chance.
Over two years ago now, I was surfing the internet looking for a place that I could print business cards for my then 11-year-old son Chase, to hand out for his new blog and cooking show, when up popped TCP - The Complete Package.
As fate would have it, when I arrived at TCP I met and struck up a conversation with Bob, who I quickly learned was the owner. Through this conversation, it was revealed that his daughter Lauren, who was working at the cash register, was diagnosed as autistic when she was 17 years old.
Lauren is now 34 years old. Because of Lauren’s unique circumstances, and in order to answer those questions that were haunting him, Bob quit his job and started TCP.
Bob’s story has been a source of encouragement and inspiration to me through my own journey of supporting Chase in his endeavors to fulfill his dreams and goals for the future. I asked Bob if I could interview him, and tell his and Lauren’s story through HEART magazine, for others to be encouraged and inspired. Here is their story:
When did you first notice there was something special about Lauren?
When she was about 5 years old and started going to school.
What were some of the signs and symptoms?
She wasn’t making friends at school. She didn’t really know how to socialize.
Was there anything prior to 5 years old that gave you a hint that there might be something else going on?
She would walk on her toes. She didn’t like to be touched or to show affection. She didn’t make eye contact. The doctors would tell us that she was just really shy.
As a father though, when you have a daughter, you think of how special that father-daughter relationship is supposed to be. They are supposed to look at you like you’re their hero, and all of that stuff. But not for me and Lauren. It was different. To not have that kind of relationship where you can hug your daughter is really hard. But you understand and get used to it.
Lauren also didn’t engage in that back and forth conversation either, so I would play the chicken game. I had a toy chicken, and when I got home from work I would take the chicken and say, “Hi Lauren, how was your day?” She would answer, and then reach for the chicken. I would tell her she had to wait. I couldn’t give her the chicken until she asked me a question. I was trying to teach her that back and forth conversation exchange.
Where did you learn that game?
I think I read about it in an article somewhere.
When did you learn or discover Lauren was autistic?
Lauren’s senior year in high school. She was seventeen. Lauren got great grades in high school, but socially and emotionally school had always been brutal.
I remember calling the school psychologist and telling her, “We have to do something for her. Something is wrong.”
The school psychologist didn’t see that Lauren had any problems. Lauren was never late to school. She was a straight A student who, by the way, graduated with honors. She had no disciplinary problems. She didn’t see the problem. I told her I wanted to bring Lauren into her office and let her speak to her for about 15 minutes, and then we would talk. So I brought her into the office. It took 5 minutes, maybe less, for the psychologist to come out and say, “Okay, this is what we are going to do for her.” At that point, they offered some services to her, but they just didn’t help.
I remember your telling me that you were the one that had to tell Lauren’s doctor to look at the autism diagnosis.
Yes, I read an article one day and said, “That’s it. That’s Lauren.” I brought the article to the doctor and said, “Doesn’t this sound like Lauren?” The doctor agreed, and that was it.
Did Lauren do any reading or research on it after she was diagnosed?
No. She was just relieved that there was a name for it.
Did you have a support system or know of anyone else going through what you were going through during those 17 years without a diagnosis, and then shortly after the diagnosis?
No. No one knew anything about autism or the symptoms. After getting the diagnosis, we tried different therapies for Lauren, but it just wasn’t for her. Early intervention is really the key. If you can catch it early, you can try to re-train some of the behaviors, but with Lauren it was just really difficult. We went to a few social functions with other Asperger’s children and parents, hoping she may make some friends, but these kids all have different circumstances and interests, and they don’t know how to engage with each other. Lauren has even dated a couple of times. Both young men were Asperger’s, but it was just really difficult. I’ll be sitting there with her and her date at dinner, and there’s just no conversation. One guy she dated was higher functioning than Lauren and wound up breaking up with me…well, Lauren… but it was through me. (Laughs) The other guy she dated for a year, but it just didn’t work.
Does Lauren have any goals?
Lauren was obsessed with oceanography when she was younger. She would read everything about the ocean. You could name a fish and she would list off 10 facts about it. She wanted to be a marine biologist, but I knew that wasn’t going to work for her. She’s afraid of water, first of all. Her favorite food is fish too. I told her that she wasn’t going to be able to eat her patients. (Laughs)
Are there any activities that Lauren likes that really showcase her at her best?
Oh, yes. She loves to go to sporting events especially baseball. She loves baseball. The season starts in a few weeks and I bet she already has her outfit picked out. When she’s at the games, she’s just like a normal fan. You’d never guess there was anything different about her. She also loves to shop. She loves picking out clothes and buying outfits. Just like any other girl. It’s great!
What are some of Lauren’s gifts and talents?
She can complete a 3,000 or 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in a few hours. She takes a piece out of the box, studies it and puts it exactly where it is going to be in the puzzle. It’s the most amazing thing. I thought for a brief time that maybe working for the FAA would be good for her. She could help figure out why a plane crashed by taking the pieces from the wreckage and putting the plane back together. She would be really good at that. But then I thought, that might be a little morbid for her.
Lauren can also memorize an entire book. That’s why she did so well in school. She would just memorize everything. Her memory comes in handy around the store.
If a customer’s name slips my memory, I just have to ask Lauren and she can tell me. (Laughs)
So let’s talk about your store. Why did you open TCP (The Complete Package)?
For Lauren. I was the VP of Engineering at a large firm. Both mine and my wife’s careers were booming, but I was the one that was home with the kids more. I saw and heard everything that Lauren was going through.
I needed to figure out what to do for her. After high school, Lauren went to college for a short time, but it was just too difficult.
She finally was able to get a job at Wal-Mart, but they had to let her go. I’ll never forget that day. I went to pick her up and she was hysterical. There was no calming her down. I didn’t know what to do. There was an Angels game we were supposed to go to, but I didn’t know if I should take her to the hospital or what to do. She finally stopped crying and asked if we were still going to the baseball game. I was so relieved and said, “YES!” After that, I told my wife that night, I can’t have her go through something like that ever again. My wife asked me what I was going to do, and I didn’t know. I went back to my office the next day, and just looked out the window at the city and thought, “What can I do? What kind of business can I open?” I saw that there really weren’t any packaging and shipping businesses around, so I finally decided on a packaging and shipping business. TCP has since grown and turned into not just a packaging and shipping supplies business, but we also do custom printing and graphic design.
Does Lauren know you opened this store just for her?
Did you have any experience in this industry?
No. I knew nothing. I was an engineer, but engineers like to fix things and figure things out, so that’s what I did. I thought I was going to be able to keep my engineer job and just work in an office in the back of our building, but I tried it and that didn’t work out.
So you were working two jobs for a while? What happened?
Yes. Well, Lauren is not good with math. We have a cash register with the best software on it to help Lauren, and she knows how to make change, but if she has already put the numbers in the register and the customer decides to give her two pennies after the fact, forget it. Lauren loses it. I just realized that I have to be here 100% of the time, so I can help her. So I quit my job as an engineer.
Was Lauren a part of building the business?
Yes. As a matter of fact, she will tell people, this is “our” business. She also had her own ideas. It was her idea to have a coffee area, and she wanted to be in charge of that, and also help with the cash register. Now, she is also the shipping guru, and a licensed notary. She does a great job with that. Several of the law firms close by use her all the time. She’ll walk over to their offices and notarize documents, and then come back. Just about everyone who comes into the store is so supportive and understanding. We have great customers. In all the years we have been here, there have only been a small handful who have mistreated Lauren or have been rude. For the most part, everyone is really great with her.
How long has TCP (The Complete Package) been in business now?
Nine years. I tell my son that when it’s time for me to leave, he will take over the store. He’s totally fine with it. He has already told me that he will always be there to take care of his sister. When he gets married, his wife is just going to have to understand.
Wow! That must be such a relief to know your son is going to be there for his sister.
Yes. Dan is the best. He really loves his sister.
Not every parent can just up and start a business for their child. What advice would you give to a parent who is concerned about their child’s future, and wants to find ways to secure it now?
You’re right, not everyone can do that. My advice would be for them to find something, anything for their child to do that will help ensure that they feel a sense of self-worth. Even if it is collecting carts at a grocery store. These kids understand self-worth, and they need to feel accomplished in something.
What final words of encouragement would you offer parents who have a child with special circumstances?
It’s not your fault. Accept these kids as they are, and encourage them. Help them find their way, and just be patient.