Kevin Gibbs, Cutting through autism stereotypes

Kevin Gibbs works at Tobago Glass Supplies Ltd Rousseau Trace, Spring Garden, Tobago as a glass cutter. - Photo by David Reid
Kevin Gibbs works at Tobago Glass Supplies Ltd Rousseau Trace, Spring Garden, Tobago as a glass cutter. - Photo by David Reid

Kevin Gibbs, 31, is a valued employee of Tobago Glass Supplies Ltd, Rousseau Trace, Spring Garden.

Gibbs, who is autistic, carries out his responsibilities as a glass glazer diligently, despite the challenges associated with the condition.

He gets to work on time, knows what he has to do and executes it to the best of his ability.

Gibbs also knows when it’s time for his tea and lunch breaks.

As a result, he is highly regarded by managers, staff and customers.

Kevin Gibbs at work at Tobago Glass Supplies Ltd in Tobago - Photo by David Reid 

Autism is a developmental disorder characterised by difficulties with social interaction and communication as well as restrictive and repetitive behaviour. It is usually detected in children under the age of three years-old.

World Autism Day was observed last Friday (April 2). This year’s theme was Inclusiveness In the Workplace.

Tobago Supplies Ltd’s assistant manager Heather Edwards, who has worked with Gibbs for the past ten years, described him as an exemplar.

“Autistic people can be quite productive,” she told Newsday.

“If a quote unquote 'normal person' could be more like him in terms of their productivity, the workplace will be a better place.

“I don’t have any problems with him at work. If I give him a task, it will be done.”

Edwards said while some employees were easily distracted when carrying out their tasks, Gibbs was focussed, conscientious and resourceful.

“Because he has a routine, if he comes to work a day and his workload is light, he looks for things to do.”

Edwards said workers across various fields, with all of their faculties in tact, are often not as willing to over-extend themselves.

“He or she may feel they are not supposed to do this and they show you that in their body language.”

Edwards said the company has not regretted hiring the Les Coteaux resident.

But she admitted this has not always been so.

“In our case, when we first took him on, the boss didn’t really want him to work because he thought he would not have been able to function effectively.

“But we insisted because he comes from the same area that the owners come from. So, we saw it as an outreach to help the young man.”

Edwards said Gibbs, who is currently on vacation, also had several things in his favour.

He attended the Happy Haven School, Signal Hill, which caters for children with special needs.

Glass cutter Kevin Gibbs at work. Photo by David Reid

Edwards believes the school prepares the children for social interaction outside of the school setting.

“He already had that exposure and we decided to give him a try.”

Given the nature of his condition, Edwards said staff had to learn quickly how to communicate with him.

She added that it still remains a challenge for some employees and customers.

“He wouldn’t communicate with the normal public as you would expect.”

Edwards said apart from his colleagues, he rarely responds to pleasantries from customers.

“If you say ‘morning’ to him, he would just watch you and act like you didn’t even speak.”

She said people who are not well-informed about autism would view Gibbs’ attitude as offensive.

Edwards said on several occasions, she and other staff members have had to apologise to customers for his behaviour.

“If somebody comes into the office in the general area for customers and he is out in that area, because he looks normal and does not have any deficiency in his make-up, people would go up to him and ask a question. He would just walk off.

“If we are not around him, that could set a bad precedent on the company and sometimes we are forced to apologise to customers.”

Acknowledging that people with autism are human beings, Edwards believes employers must be willing to give them a chance to make a meaningful contribution to the society.

She said employers must first understand what “makes them tick.”

In Gibbs’ case, Edwards observed he has a routine.

“Before he even leaves to go home, he has a routine. We have an upstairs at the workplace, he goes up there and stays there for about an hour, listens to his music and then he goes home. That is a routine every day.”

She observed that music is Gibbs' passion.

“Music is a critical factor of his life. When he goes on lunch, he has to have his music over his ears and if you try to take it away from him, it is going to be trouble.”

He also listens to music while he is awaiting transportation to go his home.

“His parents used to pick him up from work but he wants to take his own transport.

“So, while he is waiting for transport, he has the music in his ears and he dances on the road.”

Edwards believes Gibbs has gained a reputation as one of Tobago’s unofficial icons.

“When people see him dancing at the side of the road they know that is the guy that works at the Glass Supplies.”

She said whenever there are gift exchanges at work, they often purchase headsets, cellular phone accessories and other gadgets.

Kevin Gibbs, left, works at Tobago Glass Supplies Ltd as a glass cutter. - Photo by David Reid

Edwards said Gibbs is also passionate about cellphones.

She said once employers are able to identify their “comfort zone” they would not have a problem.

Reflecting on World Autism Day, Edwards suggested that companies in TT establish a day to celebrate autism in the workplace.

“We should not wait for World Autism Day to acknowledge people with autism in the workplace locally.”

She believes such an event would benefit people with autism, personally and professionally, as well as the companies they represent through networking and other forms of engagement.

“I have seen it happen in America where two autistic people even get married. But the fact of the matter is that autistic people in communities will get to know one-another. I think that would be a fantastic idea.”


"Kevin Gibbs, Cutting through autism stereotypes"

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