Autistic teen alleges verbal abuse working at Frisch’s

By Brett Milam - Editor

George Orwell in a 1946 essay said, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Orwell was talking in the context of linguistics and the political landscape of his time, but it’s clear words wield this power of influence.

Words have been the seeds of blossoming Shakespearean sonnets, the basis of religious texts and the conduit to discovery, peace and love. But words can also lead to dispute, pain and war.

And at the interpersonal level, negative words have a way of burrowing into the bone marrow, finding refuge in one’s grey matter and nullifying that adage about “sticks and stones.”

Those negative words have the power to make a 19-year-old man think about climbing to the top of Skyline Chili in Bethel and ending it all because he’s tired of people treating him differently.

Because the disparaging words of “retard” and “slow” had become too much.

For Caleb Sepulveda, those were the kind of words he said he heard from an assistant manager while working at the Frisch’s in Bethel on West Plane Street.

Caleb is on the autism disorder spectrum, or neurodivergent, as he refers to it. Specifically, he said he has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a developmental disorder, classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders under the umbrella diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder.” It’s considered a high-functioning form of autism, marked by difficulty in social interactions and hypersensitivities to lights and sounds, among other symptoms.

The Sun reached out to Cody Young, area coach manager for Frisch’s, for comment and Todd Napier, vice president of marketing, sent this statement on Sept. 10 from Sheri Harper, chief people officer, in response:

“We have been made aware of allegations concerning an employee, and an investigation is underway which includes talking with all parties who might have specific knowledge of the alleged incidents. As a matter of practice, Frisch’s Big Boy follows all federal and state regulations, and provides reasonable accommodations for employees of all backgrounds. To safeguard privacy, we cannot comment with further detail about this ongoing investigation.”

Napier also included a previous statement from Aug. 31, which said, “Since our founding, Frisch’s Big Boy has worked hard to be a place for family and friends to enjoy good food at a fair price, served by thousands of team members from a variety of backgrounds. We take these allegations seriously, and although we cannot comment more specifically, know that our investigation has been escalated to include our senior leadership team. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”

Additionally, The Sun reached out to the employee in question, but she did not wish to have her comments be on the record. For the purposes of this article and its clarity, she will be referred to by the pseudonym Jane.

Caleb began working at Frisch’s in the first week of May of this year.

“The issues started as soon as he started,” Shannon, Caleb’s mom, said.

When Caleb first started, he said the Bethel Frisch’s tried him on the food truck, where he’d unload and put away the supplies.

“Some people were kind of realizing that I was a little different, I suppose, which wasn’t really a big deal. It was standard course for me at this point, but then after about three days, I sent up a call asking them when do you next want me, when would be the next time I’m scheduled and they told me they are not going to be needing me anymore,” he said.

Just as soon as Caleb had been hired to seemingly work a full-time morning shift with the company, he was fired. In fact, on May 9, Shannon had written an email, which was provided to The Sun, to Matthew Okiishi, a lawyer with the Finney Law Firm in Cincinnati, about the situation.

“They explained to him that they were letting him go because they didn’t have a position for him. I wholeheartedly believe he was fired due to his disability,” she said. “It makes no sense to hire someone full time and a week later have no position. I’m so angry and hurt for him. Is this legal?”

However, Okiishi replied back the next day that he could not represent Shannon because, as it turned out, Finney Law Firm served as a counsel to Frisch’s and as such, that would create a conflict of interest.

Shannon had also talked to Young about the situation and Caleb said Cody had told them they weren’t firing him, but that they just didn’t need him at the moment.

In another email provided to The Sun, Cody did make contact with Shannon on May 9 regarding the situation, asking her for a telephone number to reach her at.

The story had reached the attention of Frisch’s corporate, in part, because of Caleb’s sister, Lynda, who had posted a widely-shared Facebook post about her brother’s situation.

“I’m overjoyed that management would alienate an employee to the point no one will speak to him in fear that they may lose their job. I’m so glad that management feel so fulfilled in calling an Autistic kid a ‘retard’ and ‘weird,’ Lynda said, in part. “Such a family-friendly environment.”

The post was made on Aug. 27 had 368 shares and within four days, Frisch’s corporate had responded.

According to Caleb, Jane told Shannon they understood that Caleb was autistic and in fact, that she had an autistic son, too.

That made Shannon feel better, she said, because Jane could relate to what her son was going through. As it turned out, according to Shannon, Jane not only didn’t have an autistic son, she didn’t even have a son.

“I feel like I was lied and manipulated to because why else?’ she said. “Of course that would make a mother feel better; she’ll understand, she’ll make sure he’s taken care of.”

Within the next week, Caleb said he was working on dishes from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the weekends, which was a busier time, especially on Sunday with the influx of customers from church.

That’s when more issues allegedly arose with Jane.

“She said that the reason for this was that she could not give me a weekday shift was that she wanted me to be working with somebody else because I seemed a little ‘slow,’” Caleb said.

Then Jane started calling home, reiterating how slow he was and how he was “constantly talking breaks,” Caleb said.

But instead of working the dishes with another person, Caleb said he found himself doing it alone during peak hours. When one of the employees at the Bethel Frisch’s – The Sun will refer to him by the pseudonym, John – tried to help Caleb, Caleb said John was pulled aside by Jane and told, “Do not help him, we are trying to get him to quit.”

Then came the allegations about the use of “retard” to refer to Caleb.

“She used that word on numerous occasions,” Shannon said, with one context allegedly being, “I hate retards.”

According to text messages provided to The Sun by Shannon between her and John, John said another employee allegedly used the word in the context of, “I’m not letting a retard take food.

“I have been ALIENATED because I was sticking up for someone I believe in,” John said in a text to Shannon. “And they want to MAKE ME PAY?!”

John has since left the restaurant, Shannon said.

Caleb said Jane actually brought him into the office to address the rumors that she had used “retard” toward him, where she allegedly said she would never use that word except for in a medical sense.

“I just want to make sure that I’m the last person that this happens to there. This would go on and I’m like, ‘Alright, I can’t take it anymore, I don’t want to go back there, I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel welcome’,” Caleb said.

Shannon said, even though she thought Jane wanted him to quit, she didn’t want Caleb to learn to quit.

He stuck with it for four months, she said. But by the last week of August, Caleb did end up leaving the restaurant.

“She won,” Shannon said.

“While I was there, I would always be reminded that I was not one of them,” Caleb added.

Caleb’s always struggled with fitting in, Shannon said, adding that it would break her heart when Caleb would tell her that he just “wished to be normal.”

Shannon said Caleb spent time at the Stoner Creek Behavioral Health Centre in Paris, Kentucky at one point because he had tried to kill himself.

“If I were to say that it’s been easy, I’d be lying. I have time and time again, I’ve been reminded by people that I am not the same as them. And more often than not, it’s in a bad way,” he said. “In high school, I would sit alone in the cafeteria table … there would be rumors about me that I would always smell like cat piss or the reason I was in the bathroom so much was because I was ‘cranking one out.’”

Instead, he said he was in the bathroom for those moments he felt overwhelmed and needed some time to himself, to take deep breaths and calm down.

But while he was in the stall, people would take wet paper towels and throw them over the stall at him, Caleb said.

“I moved him to several different schools because of the bullying,” Shannon said. “They started isolating him instead of punishing the kids.”

So when the issues began happening at the Bethel Frisch’s, Shannon said it was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” because she’d seen this play out before.

“There were times at work where I would always feel like maybe I am no good, maybe like I’m going to be dealing with this for the rest of my life,” Caleb said.

He continued, “This is the first time I’ve said this aloud: there were times in there I felt like if I can’t even do dish duty right … if I can’t even do the average, then maybe it would just be better if I went next door and climbed on top of the Skyline,” Caleb said, trailing off.

Caleb said he felt worthless.

Eventually, though, Caleb said he was not okay with feeling like that and that he needed to walk away from the job.

“Something in me screamed that nothing about this is okay. Something in me screamed that this is not my fault, that I work hard,” he said. “That every time I go there, I do my best to push past what I can do.”

Work was a sense of a pride for Caleb, though, and quitting wasn’t something he wanted to do.

“I have been trying for so long to be able to stand up on my own, to be able to handle a job, to be able to have my own place,” Caleb said. “Some days, all I can do when I’m trapped in these thoughts, it is everything that I can do to keep my head above the water, to try to do anything to shut these thoughts out until the next time that I can prove to these people that just aren’t listening that I know what they’re doing, I know what they’re saying.”

He added, “They never had any intention of letting me be more than just the autistic guy they’re trying to get rid of.”

Shannon said it’s not about seeing Jane get fired, but that she shouldn’t be in a supervisory role, at least.

Caleb also wanted to add that he’s not condoning any sort of hate message to Jane.

“This is about making things right and moving towards people understanding one another, not attacking one another and making them feel unsafe,” he said. “And I would like to send a message out there to anyone who has sent a message like that, that they are not on my side.”