ALDONA: The Owl Café is a charming little eatery, set in a colonial-era Goan house in the quiet lanes of Aldona. A lush garden space leads into the rustic café-set up, serving a small but interesting menu – from crowd favourites like the pesto pasta salad and choris pie, to salads, sandwiches and beverages, the café seems to have hit its mark with the quality of its ingredients and wholesome portions. However, what sets it apart is that all the food is prepped, cooked and served by neurodivergent individuals.
Neurodivergence is an umbrella term for people whose brains function and process information in a manner that is different from what is considered typical- people on the autism spectrum, who may face difficulty with socialising and communicating, those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), people with dyslexia, that may cause challenges in reading, writing and math, and various other forms of neurodivergence, who may not find it easy to find employment, explains Kenisha Fernandes. Fernandes handles marketing and advocacy for the Owl House, a non-profit centre that provides special education and vocational training for neurodivergent children and adults, and five weeks ago, launched the Owl Café.
Once you’re seated at the café, you’re greeted by cheerful Sahil, who introduces himself and hands you a marker and an interactive menu- you check the items you want to order and mention any specifications, to make it easier for 22-year-old Sahil, who has autism and can also get a bit distracted sometimes. The food arrives quickly, and Ariana, who is an all-rounder at the café, helps Sruthesh, who has a visual impairment due to William-Beuren Syndrome, serve the food. “It’s a team effort,” says Fernandes. The Owl House employs five facilitators to coach students in different vocations and activities like gardening, art and culinary skills among others.
Asserting that their neurodivergent students employed at the café are just as capable and hard-working as neurotypical people, Fernandes explains that they need information and education conveyed differently.
“Tasks need to be broken down in a step-by-step manner, to help them grasp their assignments better,” explains Fernandes. For instance, students with autism and ADHD may not be able to follow a recipe in one go, but by breaking the process into individual tasks- from identifying the ingredients, measuring each one out, prepping each ingredient and then assembling, cooking, and plating the dish – and with repetition and practice, the students manage to put out some truly delicious fare, like their stellar coffee cake, filled with white chocolate pudding and drizzled with salted coffee caramel-
a dessert Jazmyne Gonsalves, the culinary facilitator, should be
very proud of.
Simple tools like illustrated recipe cards, ingredients and condiments labelled with pictures for easy identification, and a calculator can make a world of a difference for a neurodivergent chef, and Owl Café aims to be the stepping stone to help their students find work at mainstream restaurants.
Apart from the café, the Owl House also has a little shop, where jewellery, pottery, soaps, art and various other knick-knacks crafted by the students are on display, alongside bottled condiments and sauces made at the café. The house also has classrooms, activity areas and a padded sensory room, where students can go to blow off steam or just rest when they feel overwhelmed. “Sometimes, our students need help managing their emotions- they may be overstimulated or under stimulated, or may feel hurt, angry or anxious and need a space to safely compose themselves- a sensory room becomes a haven and is an important part of a neurodivergent-friendly workplace,” adds Fernandes. While the students receive a stipend from the sales of the café and shop, the dream is that one day, when employers become more inclusive and accepting of different kinds of learners, they would be able to thrive in a competitive world that largely functions to suit neurotypical people. The Owl Café is open from 10 am to 6.30 pm on all days except Thursdays and Sundays.