Serving up hope

The Autistic Cafe Project is a social enterprise that provides those with autism essential life skills. Founder Mohd Adli Yahya shares with Priya Kulasagaran how the project was inspired by his son, and his dreams for the future

A common worry among most parents is whether their offspring will be able to live full and productive lives once they are gone. This particularly true for parents whose children are differently-abled; in a world where the odds are still so stacked against them, what can they do to make sure that their young ones will be able to navigate those challenges without their help.

These were the questions plaguing Mohd Adli Yahya when he considered his autistic son’s future. As he worked his corporate gig, as an executive director of the Standard Charted Foundation, the 53-year-old struggled to come up with an answer.

“My son (Muhammad Luqman Shariff) was 2-years-old when he was first diagnosed, and I admit, I was in a bit in denial at that point,” shares Mohd Adli. “I didn’t really understand what the condition actually meant. The doctors just told me that he was a bit ‘slow’, which was fine. But that didn’t prepare me for dealing with raising such a child.”

He adds that denial manifested in going to doctor after doctor, in a misguided hope that the diagnosis was an inaccurate one. “My (six) other children were ‘normal’, it almost felt like I had done something wrong for this poor child to have this condition. At the same time, I had a lot of guilt for even thinking that, and some part of me knew I had to accept this for what it was,” he says.

The road to acceptance was a long and rocky one; Muhammad Luqman was 10-years-old before his father finally made some peace with the diagnosis.

Mohd Adli says that through scouring for information from wherever he could to learn more about autism, he started to get a clearer picture of the condition and found himself identifying with the list of symptoms; the lack of eye contact, the obsession with maintaining order, the repetitive behaviour. “I learnt that patience is important, but I used to occasionally lose my temper at him. I still regret doing that, it wasn’t fair of me to do so,” he adds.

From acceptance to concrete plans

As Muhammad Luqman grew older, Mohd Adli started to fear for his son’s future: who will be there for his child when he and his wife were gone?

“Sure, he has his siblings, but they need to live their own lives as well. He needs at least a minimum amount of independence, he needs to earn a basic living for himself. I looked around the existing communities, and I felt like we could do better. So I had this idea for the cafe, and I quit my job so I could do it properly,” he says.

While Mohd Adli has no regrets leaving his corporate life, the journey towards setting up the cafe was hardly smooth. A promising start alongside a special needs organisation, based out of a shop house in Subang Jaya, unfortunately fizzled out. Luckily, Mohd Adli then managed to secure a space within IM4U Sentral’s premises in Puchong. Launched in 2012, IM4U is a government initiative set up to encourage volunteerism among Malaysian youth. Although this platform, as well as growing recognition through social media, helped Mohd Adli garner some donations for the project, he had to supplement a fair amount out of his own pocket as well.

“Well, I had to sell off my car for one — but that wasn’t such a big deal for me,” says Mohd Adli. “We also do catering for private functions to make more money, because I don’t want to keep depending on donations. I want the cafe to be self-sustainable, because I think that’s the best way to do it.”

Open on weekdays from 8:30am to 12pm, the Autism Project Cafe is cosy space that serves a rotation of unfussy fare – nasi lemak, roti jala, fried noodles, and sometimes spaghetti and meatballs. There is also a range of local kuih, usually made by autistic youth who live too far away to work at the cafe itself.

At the counter, Muhammad Luqman is a familiar face, cheerfully greeting customers as they walk in. “I like meeting people, it’s fun,” he says of his job, with a shy smile. Mohd Adli chips in, saying that the simple act of interacting with people has done wonders for his son’s confidence. “But I have to say, he loves washing dishes – I think we have the cleanest plates in the country!” he jokes.

Even as the cafe works out its plan to be self-sustaining in the long run, Mohd Adli has already started reaching out to youths beyond the confines of the Klang Valley. He shares that the project has sister initiatives in other states, such as a group making t-shirts in Perlis and another that produces cookies in Pahang. These products do not just help the cafe generate additional revenue, but also offer employment for even more youth with autism.

Mohd Adli’s ideal goal however, is to have a permanent space for the cafe, with similar outlets across the country. “We’re currently looking for investors to fund for a space, as well as get more equipment like furniture and cutlery. Hopefully, people will be able to see the value in having this sort of operation here,” he says.

Tailor-made training

While there are more training programmes available now for young adults with special needs, especially compared to just a few years ago, Mohd Adli points out that there is a lot more to be done.

“Giving them life skills is one thing, but the question is who is going to employ them?” he says. “I’m glad that there are a few employers now willing to take them on, but it’s not easy to convince more people to hire special needs people over the able-bodied. You do have to make some changes in the way you work.”

These minor adjustments are reflected throughout the cafe, Mohd Adli explains. “So for example, we use plastic cups instead of glasses, and an air fryer instead of a stove; this minimises the risk of accidents in the kitchen,” he says. “We keep the menu simple and straightforward so it is easier for the staff to manage the number of items they have to know. I also try to encourage as much communication as possible so they (the staff) can practise their verbal skills. This includes introducing themselves to customers, and calculating the bill in front of the customers.”

He also brings up an important point on how people view autistic children; they are not a monolith group with a standard list of symptoms and quirks. “There is a wide range, from high-functioning autism to those with more needs. Someone who is high-functioning may appear ‘normal’, but they may have sensory issues; one of our employees really dislikes anyone, especially strangers, to touch or hug him. But others are fine with it. Just like you and me, each child is different,” he explains.

One technique that has worked well in training his employees is to match them according to their needs. While four senior supervisors unassumingly observe the staff during their duties, a high-functioning youth is usually paired with a high-needs employee. “Those with high-functioning autism guide their partners, and give them encouragement, while also building the confidence of the former. So while one person washes the dishes, the other may act as ‘quality control’, informing them that the dish is clean. It also allows them the opportunity to really work together a team,” he says.

Another crucial component is making the training successful is to involve the youths’ families as well. “They (the parents) help out with our outreach and fundraising projects, like baking cookies or making T-shirts. It gives the children that feeling support, and helps for them to connect with others who understand what they are going through as well,” says Mohd Adli.

That said, Mohd Adli says he needs to strike a balance between parental involvement and overprotective ‘helicoptering’. While parents are allowed to sit in for the first day of new employees initial training, Mohd Adli gently coaxes them to not be present beyond that duration. “I get it, it is hard to let go of their children. But they have to give them some space to be a bit more independent,” he says.

Ultimately, what he hopes for the Autism Project Cafe is that it will act as a bridge between youth with autism and society at large. “It’s not just about giving them skills and employment, but also showing others that they can contribute to the community as well,” he says. “Many people are still very unaware of what autism looks like, and it’s sad that some of these youth are just sent to care homes for the rest of their lives. They can contribute; you just need to give them the chance to do so.”

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