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Austin’s heartwarming firelighters make CEO on autism spectrum ‘visible’

A warming fire crackles to life in a fire pot outside a garage workshop where the packing of firelighters will soon begin.

Deborah and Andrew Smith are just waiting for their son, Austin — the boss — to show up. The boss has autism spectrum disorder and is non-verbal.

As the top dog, he starts working when the mood takes him and gets in the groove by playing The Wiggles on his headset. Much like any modern office.

The Smiths at work making scent-free firelghters in their shed at Elizabeth Town.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

“He will wander into the shed here when he’s ready and he mostly does the packing and the deliveries. And he’s the public face of the business.”

The Smiths have three sons, twins Angus and Rohan, and Austin, who is four years younger.

Austin is 25 and lives with a significant disability. Too often, being non-verbal and on the autism spectrum restricts participation and can also be a barrier to understanding.

Austin turns to wave, wearing headphones for his beloved music.
Austin Smith has a job, a car and a public profile. People who are non-verbal because of a disability can often feel invisible.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

The Smiths of Elizabeth Town are determined that Austin knows a bigger world and that he warms the hearts and also the hearts of his community.

An idea borne of necessity

The idea of ​​producing scent-free firelighters began when both Deborah and Austin found that some commercial firelighters triggered their asthma.

“But more than that, we wanted for Austin what we wanted for our twins — to have a car, have a job and contribute to society,” Ms Smith said, emptying a tray of molded wax-based firelighters onto a sorting tray.

Crackling orange flame igniting around fresh sticks in a firepot.
The firepot outside the workshop gets cracking with some help from one of the family’s own firelighters.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

“We moved here from the Blue Mountains in 2005 to attend Giant Steps [a specialised school for people with autism].

“I participated in the adult program too but unfortunately that’s no longer funded.”

The NDIS has helped somewhat with Austin now receiving day support.

The family business began with a period of ‘quasi-scientific’ experimentation in the backyard, using scone trays on a barbecue.

Bags are handed over in the street outside a shop.
Austin personally delivering firelighters to Alf Franssen from Seppenfelts in Deloraine. The Smiths want their community to know their son.(Supplied: Andrew Smith)

“We can’t tell you our secret recipe but they work very well, there’s no smell and the paper packaging can all be burned or recycled.”

The Warm Home Warm Hearts Firelighter Company chooses to eschew social media but word of mouth has been seen bags sent across Tasmania and to South Australia and NSW.

A mother and son hug and smile together for the camera.
Deborah Smith with her son Austin: “He’s just such a lovely guy.”(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

But growth and profit are irrelevant here.

Not great enterprise intended

“This never needed to be any great enterprise,” Mr Smith said.

“It just needed to be a vehicle for Austin to be known and appreciated by many people in his community.”

When the CEO finally arrives, he goes straight to work. Austin is a huge guy with a gentle vibe. He offers a silent high five to all present and starts packing bags.

His carer/support worker, Paul, is going to drive Austin in Austin’s car to Chudleigh to deliver four bags to a customer and supporter.

A row of waxy home-made refrigerators in workshop.
The Smiths’ homemade firelighters are wax-based but contain secret ingredients.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

Chatting by the fire pot outside, Mr Smith reveals that The Wiggles connection runs deeper than Austin’s taste in music.

“I used to work with the blue guy, Anthony. One of the funnest days ever with Austin was taking him backstage,” he said.

“The Wiggles gathered around us, Anthony threw me a banjo and he grabbed the pipes. And we played Banjo Breakdown for Austin.

“He just looked at me as if to say ‘How did you do that!?’

Anthony Field dressed up in costume on the Wiggles set
Anthony Field is the founding member of The Wiggles and a friend of Austin’s dad, Andrew.(Facebook: The Wiggles)

“We do our best to give him a gentle environment, our own little version of normal.”

No one should be invisible

Joining her husband by the fire pot, Ms Smith adds that people with a disability, who are non-verbal, often become invisible.

“Delivering door-to-door makes Austin visible. And it’s beautiful to see that negotiation with someone who doesn’t have language,” she said.

A couple carefully manouvre a tray towards a bench inside a garage.
Deborah and Drew Smith tipping another tray of firelighters onto the packing table at Elizabeth Town.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

“Austin’s customers develop other skills and ways of relating with him.

“And, I know I’m his mum but he’s one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet.

“He is just another living human being who is doing the best he can in a tricky world.

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