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From dressers to gazebos, Brad Fremmerlid has built more than 1,000 pieces of furniture. Along the way, he’s become a source of inspiration for families around the world

Brad Fremmerlid is a non-verbal autistic man in Edmonton with a business assembling things for clients.Photography by Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Brad Fremmerlid walks into a client’s house in northeastern Edmonton on a cold Friday morning and heads straight downstairs. He is 30 years old, tall, with dark hair and bright-blue eyes. He likes skating and biking and making music, but it’s his work that has changed his life.

In his client’s newly renovated basement, Brad opens a box containing an Erik filing cabinet from IKEA and spreads 25 pieces and 16 screws around him on the floor. He stares at the ceiling. He paces to the bathroom. He spins and spins through the hallway, nearly hitting his head on the ceiling. He groans and hums.

The booklet of assembly instructions sits unopened nearby.

“And he can do this?” his client asks, somewhat tentatively.

“Oh yes,” says Herbie Almonia, a community support worker who has gone with Brad to hundreds such jobs. “Brad can put together anything.”

Brad puts together a filing cabinet for a client. The instruction booklet lies unused behind him as he works intently.

Out on the job, Brad spins around to stimulate and comfort himself.

A family photo shows Brad as a child. Now 30, his building work gives him a new connection to the wider world.

Brad lives with severe autism. He can say only two words – “Brad” and “Dad” – and those just barely. He can’t read, write or communicate outside a few basic hand signals. He can’t navigate finding a public bathroom. He can’t cross a street alone.

But through his work, Brad has become a source of inspiration for people around the world, and especially families of others with autism, an example of what can be achieved with proper supports.

“There is hope,” his mother, Deb Fremmerlid, says. “Even when you don’t think there is.”

As a child, Brad seemed to his parents to be in his own world, an “unguided missile” moving through their lives, unreachable, unstoppable. He would get up early and stay up late, fuelled by a wild energy that could only be contained if he was kept constantly busy – and otherwise left him unmanageable and screaming, sometimes violent. He was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder as a toddler, and later, with autism.

“I put almost all my energy into trying to change Brad,” his father, Mark Fremmerlid, remembers.

For years, the couple tried desperately to make a connection with their son, but nothing seemed to work. At worst, Mark says, it seemed like failure. At best, it felt as if they were only coping.

But while Brad struggled so much in many areas, he also had great strengths. In particular, Mark noticed how easily Brad could put things together, as though his brain naturally understood how a series of pieces could be assembled into something whole.

In Brad’s teen years, they started building: complex die-cast cars, model airplanes, furniture, Lego sets with thousands of pieces and instruction books as thick as novels, it didn’t matter. Brad could do it, often without even looking at the instructions.

“He’ll put everything into order, that’s what he does,” Mark says. “He puts things into order.”

Brad assembles a Lego model. When Brad was a teenager, he and his father, pictured below with a complex model of a car, started honing his talents for assembling intricate things.

Mark got the idea for a business in part because Brad could build so much, so fast, that it was impossible to keep buying him new projects. Brad built almost every piece of furniture in their home, and his models and Lego kits collected in a room in the basement.

But Mark thought about how companies such as IKEA sell so much that has to be assembled, and how many people dislike putting things together or find it hard. He knew that, with support, Brad could perform a valuable service, and interact with the world in way that was positive and productive.

When an online ad yielded only two responses, Mark started working with an Edmonton think tank with experience developing programming for people with disabilities. Together, they figured out a plan for a business, Made By Brad, and in 2013 produced a video that showed who Brad was, and what he could do. The video went online, and soon Mark started to get messages from people who wanted to hire his son.

As he works on the Erik filing cabinet from Ikea, his care worker Herbie Almonia, bottom right, looks on and offers encouragement.

At work, as in all other parts of Brad’s life, there is an unchangeable routine. At his clients’ house, Brad drinks water, eats dry cereal, has an apple. Then he packs up his garbage, and visits the washroom for the first of what will be three visits.

His behaviour can be disconcerting, so Ms. Almonia sits nearby, explaining the routines, the things Brad is doing and why.

Though one online reviewer specifically criticized the Erik filing cabinet, as “very difficult to assemble,” it’s easy for Brad. He’s done much harder projects. He doesn’t even open the instruction book, but silently surveys the pieces around him, calculating where they go.

“There is no day that this guy doesn’t amaze me all the time,” Ms. Almonia says. “I just watch him in awe.”

When the homeowner picks up the manual out of curiosity, Brad takes it from her hands and puts it aside. Although he can’t speak, his meaning is clear. I know what to do.

And he does. The cabinet comes together, solid and perfectly assembled. Brad tries the drawers and the lock, and he’s finished.

“I don’t even check it any more,” Ms. Almonia tells the client. “He puts it together, and it’s always right.”

Brad spends an evening with his parents, father Mark and mother Deb, at their home. Below, he gets ready to leave for the care home where he lives, which he identifies as 'home' in sign language (as opposed to 'house' for his parents' place).

So far, Brad has done more than 1,000 jobs. He’s assembled wardrobes and dressers and bookshelves, gazebos and closet systems and entire kitchens. There hasn’t been a job he couldn’t do.

“It’s quite common that I won’t understand and he will,” says Mark, a pilot. “As far as putting things together, he’s the best.”

Brad earns about $400 a month, which is allowed under the funding he receives from AISH, Alberta’s funding for the severely disabled. A portion helps pay for sign-language lessons at his group home and contributes to the purchase of his models and kits, and the rest is saved for Brad. Most jobs range between $25 and $40, but the work is more valuable than the money, and Mark tries to make sure there is always work coming in.

Brad slips easily into routines that can become oppressive. If he does something the same way a couple of times, it will almost have to be that way forever, and any change can prompt an explosive reaction. But the jobs are, by nature, different. Each one a new challenge, a new environment, new people.

Brad’s parents say he makes more eye contact now, and is more attentive to the things and people around him. He used to be afraid of animals, but now that he’s sometimes around them at work, he’s started to like cats, and dogs don’t scare him as much as they did. Away from work, he’s happier, too. He no longer punches holes in the walls of his group home, and he doesn’t hit himself like he used to. There hasn’t been a serious incident in more than a year.

“He’s done 1,000 different jobs, and it’s like he’s had 1,000 different therapists,” Mark says. Each one teaching Brad something, making him more adaptable, more social, building up his confidence and his skill. Sometimes while he’s working he smiles and smirks, obviously proud of what he’s doing, obviously enjoying the people around him marvelling at his skill.

Brad is also developing in ways his parents did not expect. As he enters his thirties, he’s learned to identify some colours, and Mark figured out how to teach Brad math using techniques he developed himself.

5 x _ = 35

8 x _=72

54 + _= 75

Brad stares at the equations for a moment before entering his answers on a children’s calculator app. He’s right every time.

“I was always so desperate every day when he was young, because I thought the learning window was so narrow,” Mark says. “But it didn’t turn out to be true.”

Brad's evening routine with his family includes a skate with his father, who likes to keep Brad active.

At dinnertime, Brad shows a knack for pouring exactly matching amounts of beverages.

Mark taught Brad to shave by having exactly mimic his movements, and so he still does.

On a cold Friday in Edmonton, Brad and his dad go through their evening routine. They go skating, make snacks, shave together, eat dinner. Brad does a Lego kit, some math problems, a colouring page.

It’s a long way from where Brad has been. From the group home where he broke a window and was tackled by four men and sedated. From the hospital where he was restrained, guarded by security. “All he needs is something to do,” Mark pleaded with the nurses then, and he wrote sentences on a piece of paper so his son could copy the shapes.

Brad’s parents fought to get him into a day home, believing every person has a right to leave their house and be out in the world. They fight for his work, believing every person has a right to do something meaningful.

The Made By Brad video continues to circulate, and Mark shares Brad’s jobs and progress on Facebook, where supporters cheer his accomplishment. Mark says people contact him regularly from all over the world, especially families of other children with autism who are inspired by what Brad has been able to do, and the thought of what their own children could maybe achieve.

Mark says his son’s success has inspired him, too.

“I thought having an autistic child was the worst thing that could happen,” he says. “And now I would say, ‘Well, actually it’s the best, for me.’ It’s amazing what he’s done for me.”

Brad and Dad: A video journey

Brad Fremmerlid is 30 years old and can barely say just two words - "Brad" and "dad." Diagnosed as a toddler with pervasive developmental disorder, and later, with autism, Brad's family discovered he had an aptitude for putting together complex models and Lego sets. Brad's ability to build so much, so fast gave his dad an idea for a business.

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