Jackson High student Phil Woodard is every retail store manager’s dream.
He is a reliable and witty 18-year-old who is blessed with a keen sense of humor.
On Saturday mornings, he engrosses himself in up to a dozen computers at a time as part of a work-study program, making sure Best Buy customers have ready-to-use products, often configured to their personal needs and updated with the latest antivirus software.
“It’s amazing to see what he can do, and I’m learning new things all the time,” Geek Squad Agent Eric Nelson said. “I’ve seen things he can do that I never knew he could or expect him to do; like he works on all sorts of electronics.”
One reason Nelson didn’t know what to expect is because Woodard is autistic.
Bob Woodard said his son’s “language is pretty impaired” and “he will answer questions, but it takes a different kind if initiation.”
Nelson said he was nervous about working with an autistic student, but starting in August he opened his mind to what Phil Woodard was capable of doing. At first, Nelson had to guide his newest trainee step by step and Woodard would rarely make eye contact with him.
But somewhere along the way, their relationship became less about Woodard’s autism and more about two high-tech buffs enjoying each other’s company from 7 to 10 a.m. one day a week.
Now they share a playful back-and-forth with each other once in a while, with Woodard teasing that he’s going to put a different antivirus software on the computer than he was instructed to do.
“Just being able to connect with him really gives me a glimpse into the things he enjoys and what makes him happy,” Nelson said.
That type of interaction is also what makes Bob Woodard’s heart joyful.
He’s excited to see his son installing mobile broadband cards and helping out with wireless network solutions, but Phil Woodard’s experience at “his favorite store” is also about opportunity and independence.
At age 3, Woodard was diagnosed as “mentally retarded” by medical professionals at the University of Michigan, but Bob Woodard knew something didn’t quite add up.
“That same day when we went home (Phil) was on the computer using some software where pixels would slowly appear on the screen in the shape of a letter and he would hit the key before a whole lot would appear … and (later that year) after brain scans and some other stuff, the U of M diagnosed him as autistic,” he said.
Phil Woodard relies heavily on his mother, Jenee, who has stayed at home with him, but Bob Woodard said Jackson is a “wonderful community when it comes to supporting and showing an awareness of autism.”
Still, he was a bit surprised when his son was afforded the opportunity to showcase his technological prowess at Best Buy after making a connection with manager Ken Farrow through a mutual friend at Napoleon Community Schools, where Bob Woodard is a special-education teacher.
“I think for a company the size of Best Buy to have the willingness to take a chance and think outside the box like this says a lot about them,” he said.
He also credits Nelson for being one of the few people who “really gets Phil” and he said it’s been a joy to see the intuition he uses when communicating with him.
As published in the Jackson Citizen Patriot on Dec. 28, 2010