It's the noon-time rush at Maison Privée, a hip, white-walled barbershop in Old Montreal. As tattooed barbers chat up their clients and hair clippers begin to buzz, Jérémy Léveillé sits a little to the side, with a newfound friend.
They talk about the usual things — Netflix specials, movies and girlfriends. But for Léveillé, a 17-year-old with autism, making conversation isn't always easy.
"At first, I won't talk to anyone, or I'll be dans mon coin. I wait for someone to come to me, and then I go to socialize."
Joining him on the couch is Oliver Kult, the shop's co-founder. He's invited Lévéillé to do an internship at Maison Privée, as part of a program to give people with autism work experience. It's a first for the shop, and an idea Oliver got from his sister, who works with people with autism.
"When they're passionate, if they focus on something, they are going to do it perfectly," says Kult. "That's such a positive attitude that I need in my shop."
As the first batch of haircuts wrap up, Jérémy gets to work, weaving in and out of hairdresser stations and sweeping up fallen hair.
Although he wants to be a computer programmer one day, not a barber, his teacher says his work at Maison Privée is preparing him to be an independent adult.
Léveillé is one of 30 students in a special program at Commission Scolaire de Montréal's École Évangéline, which is designed to help learn real-life skills such as figuring out how to use public transit, how to get organized and how to behave appropriately in a workplace.
Students with challenges like Léveillé's "want to drive, they want a wife, they want to work, and society is not ready to make them a spot. So we're really touched to see that some businesses are open-minded," says Nadia Ramisch, one of Léveillé's teachers.
Although Jérémy is a little quiet amid the typical barbershop joshing around, he's also started talking to staff more, despite his anxiety around social situations.
Much to his mother's delight, some of those informal chats have led to a fresh new haircut: goodbye, shoulder-length hair.
"Before, it was more of an 1980s cut.... Now, it's more of a cooler cut," he says with a smile.
Léveillé isn't the only one enjoying his stay at the shop. So far, Kult says he's gotten great feedback on Lévéillé's work, and he hopes other businesses will follow suit and offer similar opportunities to students with autism.
"I see a lot of our clients being really stoked about it, like, 'Oh, you have someone who is not someone you're used to seeing working in a barbershop,' and we're not hiding him anywhere. He's right next to you, sweeping the hair, and it's not uncomfortable."
When he's done with his internship at the barbershop, Léveillé will move onto other workplaces, gathering more skills and building his confidence along the way. No matter what his future holds, he's determined to keep pushing himself.
"Cause for me, being autistic is not really something I'm ashamed [of]. I'm really proud. It's nothing to be ashamed [of]. I'm still a human."