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Autism Cafe Project – A Father’s Love Created Employment For His Autistic Son

Adli Yahya just wants his son, Luqman, to live life to the fullest. He wants Luqman to be independent, sociable, and to do all the things that young adults can do these days. 

Being independent, however, starts with securing paid employment, something that Adli knew would be hard to come by for Luqman, who is on the autistic spectrum. 

Lack of employment is a major stumbling stone for Persons with Disabilities (PwD) in their journey to leading independent lives.

Out of the 13.74 million workers employed in private sectors from 1990 to 2018, only 14,252 were PwDs[1]. The number of those with Autism hired in public and private sectors remains unknown. 

I’ll be honest with you; I know nobody will hire my son. Nobody. – Adli Yahya

While the government has mandated that organizations must have a 1% quota for employing PwDs, it is doubtful that most companies honour it. Some pin this on the lack of disabled-friendly infrastructure, others on the lack of established policies – with unnecessarily complicated legislations further discouraging employees to hire PwDs[2]

With approximately 9,000 autistic children born in Malaysia each year[3], the lack of employment opportunities poses a long-term problem. There is a jarring gap between the need and the availability of autism-related jobs, and not many employers are willing to step up to bridge that gap. 

If I were to leave him as he is, and wait for jobs to come by, it is impossible. When I’m gone, is he going to wake up in the morning, have breakfast, watch TV, and then wait for dinner and go to bed? That is not life, that is not living. – Adli Yahya

So Adli took it upon himself to create a job opportunity for Luqman. Luqman loves repetitious work, especially when water is involved, so café work was right up his alley. Building on this, Adli founded the Autism Café Project in 2016, with a simple mission in mind – to help secure the future of youths with autism through meaningful employment.  

Focus On The Ability, Not The Disability

When you’re asked to do something you’re good at, will you not excel at it? – Adli Yahya

This was a question Adli posed while discussing the basis of employment at the Autism Café Project. 

Here, employees are being matched with their chores based on their abilities, and not their disabilities. This is a whole new paradigm change: instead of force-fitting employees into a role, the Autism Café Project seeks to understand the likes and dislikes, talents and skills, of each employee before placing them in a role that they would thrive at and enjoy. 

Adli believes that such role-matching is very doable and gave a few examples.

Luqman loves water, and any job assigned to him that involves water would be like playing. So we let him do the dishes, mop the floor, clean the tables. The same goes for the other boys…there are those that like to speak, so we give them work in customer service. When we do what we love, we would naturally excel at it, the same goes with the PwD folks too. – Adli Yahya

Source: Adli Yahya’s Facebook/ Retrieved from Malay Mail

And what many employers are doing wrong in hiring PwDs, says Adli, is that they are going against the grain. Instead of working with the capability of each PwD, they force-fit PwDs into readily available, ‘one-size-fits-all’ roles which do more to help employers check the boxes of their annual Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) than to empower PwDs. 

PwDs are less adaptable compared to the rest of us. If you force them to do something that they do not like or do not understand, obviously it will fail. To have this happen repeatedly is heartbreaking for a parent, especially when we see their confidence shattered. – Adli Yahya

A Different Measure Of Success

In Adli’s café, success is not measured by gross profit margins or ROIs. Success here is a celebration of progress. Each time an employee (whom he affectionally calls his boys) goes from not being able to comprehend a task to being able to complete them, Adli’s team would proudly chalk it up as a moment of success. 

In the beginning, the boys do not understand the concept of nasi lemak and the condiments that they come with. But over time, they were able to understand it, pack it, and now even sell it! That, to me, is a success. – Adli Yahya

Adli also recalls another proud moment when he brought the boys to visit an orphanage, where he was able to witness the change in the boy’s faces as they slowly gained an understanding of what the orphanage was, and how lucky they were in comparison. 

They can’t express their emotions and thoughts, but they are building that up now. They enjoy life now and can even go out to watch movies together. It is just a simple thing, but to us, it’s a success! – Adli Yahya

PwDs Are Not A Burden To Society

When asked what the public could do better, Adli mentioned that PwDs are so often perceived as a group that needs so much help to a point that they are a burden to those around them. 

We strive to turn this around”, said Adli. “During the MCO, we have prepared and distributed food packets for front liners, B40 families, and orphanages. Despite the challenges that our boys go through, they are the ones providing help to those in need during this difficult time. You see, it is up to us to create opportunities for PwDs to be functional. – Adli Yahya

Source: Autism Project | Facebook

A Little Support Goes A Long Way 

Your support will change the boys’ lives. – Adli Yahya

Work done at the café is good and dignified work, and Adli emphasizes that the team is not asking for donations. Instead, they are appealing to the public for support by ordering food from them. 

When we have big orders, that would be enough to sustain us and to keep the boys busy for the day, or even for a month. You are helping them live meaningful lives. – Adli Yahya

Adli also mentioned that supporting the boys is also a good way to pay it forward. 

Buy our food, and you can donate them to front liners, B40 families, orphanages and those in need. Not only are you helping the boys, but you are also doing good for society. So why not? – Adli Yahya

Why not?

Adli’s question should be one that rings in our hearts often. Why not make a difference when we can? Why not contribute when we are capable? Why not lend a helping hand? 

May we not ignore the many ‘why nots’ that make their way through our minds as we read stories about those in need. 

May the ‘why not’s that we can act on today not be swept aside in the never-ending rat race that marks today’s society. 

May we all be attuned to the ‘why nots’ around us and be the change we want to see in our community. 

Listed below are some organisations that provide services for autistic individuals in Malaysia: 

The National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM) aim to improve the lives of people with autism through various services and programs. These programs are results-oriented and emphasise the acquisition of daily skills and changes in behaviours. They also provide support to caregivers and family members through counselling services. Currently, there are 20 NASOM centres nationwide. 

Hua Ming Autism Society provides special education, training, and therapy for autistic children, and counselling services to the parents. Here, parents can get training on how to work on their children’s behaviour to be able to live better together. 

Qamara Center believes that early intervention is key to allowing autistic children to live better lives. Their in-house early intervention program (EIP) focuses on children ages 2 to 6, where they will be exposed to occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy and social communication training. Apart from their EIP program, Qamara also offers a skill development program that focuses on training autistic and special needs children on how to play a role in the family and community. 

Autism Link Malaysia was established in 2009 to cater to the needs of Malaysians with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Therapists here are trained in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and receive ongoing training on all services provided. Get in touch for autism screening tests, and free consultation for parents to decide on the best treatment plan for their child. 

The Society for the Severely Mentally Handicapped (SSMH) was established in 1984 to cater for those with severe mental and physical disabilities. They provide daycare and education services for youths aged 2 to 19 years old. Here each youth follows an individualised education program (IEP) which is tailored to their learning abilities. There is also a low teacher to student ratio, which will ensure that each student receives adequate attention. 

Written by Emily Wong, edited by Wiki Impact Team

Explore our Sources: 

  1. Ibrahim, N; Rahman, P; Dahlan, A (2021). Parent’s Experience on Employment Issues Faced by Young Adult With Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Malaysian Journal of Medicine and Health Sciences. Link
  2. Noor, A; Mohd Isa, M; Abd Manaf, A (2017). Employees with Disabilities: Malaysian Employers’ Reflections. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences. Link
  3. The National Autism Society of Malaysia. Link 
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