In the last three months, Mohd Adli Yahya, 57, has spent a lot of time poring over information on agricultural farming. He’s keen on vertical farming and is thinking of various ways to make it sustainable for his staff.
The founder of Autism Cafe Project – a social enterprise for young adults with autism – is looking at diversifying his business and is placing his bet on chilli farming.
And he wants his staff with special needs to run the project.
“I know chilli farming will be a success with young adults with autism. I am trying to work within their abilities and I am confident chilli farming is something they can handle,” said Mohd Adli during an interview in Subang Jaya recently.
Mohd Adli’s second child Muhammad Luqman Shariff, 23, is diagnosed with low-functioning autism. Five years ago, the father of six founded ACP to train autistic youth to be independent and enable them to earn an income.
The cafe, in Subang Jaya’s Da Men Mall, has four autistic youth, including Mohd Adli’s son.
A wide range of behaviours and impairments are associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism is not an illness that can be cured; it’s a lifelong condition, and those with autism usually require lifelong care.
Special needs children, even high functioning ones, depend on others to care for and look out for them.
Like many parents of children with autism, Mohd Adli and his wife, Nozilan Mohamad, 57, worry about who would look after Muhammad Luqman when they are no longer around. Mohd Adli wants to ensure his special son and other autistic youth are equipped with the necessary skills and move towards independence.
“As parents, we are looking for a win/win situation which can benefit our special children. This is especially important for when we are older and unable to look after them. We need to get a firm footing for these kids.”
Mohd Adli reckons chilli farming is one way forward.
“Chillies are used in many dishes served in our cafe. I plan to sell ground chilli paste, chilli sambal and pickled chilli made from our farm’s chillies. I am also trying to collaborate with a hypermarket to sell our fresh produce,” explained Mohd Adli.
In 2016, he resigned as an executive director at Standard Chartered Foundation to set up ACP. His wife also gave up her job as a technician at a telecommunications company to manage the restaurant and equip autistic youth with skills.
The loving father believes in autistic individuals’ abilities and potential, and says his staff are proof that they can thrive. But, of course, it involves lots of training, encouragement, love and patience.
“Five years ago, my son couldn’t handle simple tasks like stringing a bracelet or peeling an onion. And training Muhammad Luqman wasn’t easy. But I didn’t have any other option, and I couldn’t give up. If I don’t do this for my son, who else would do it? But with years of training, he is much more capable.
“When I started ACP, I wanted to train these youth to learn a skill. But over the years, my dreams have evolved. I see this as a bigger picture, where I want them to lead their lives to the best of their ability.”
Mohd Adli is trying to raise RM50,000 to kickstart his chilli farm project. He is discussing the possibility of setting up the farm with Kebun Kebun Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur and an entrepreneur in Janda Baik in Pahang.
If all works well, he intends to launch his vertical farming project in October.
“I hope the public can support us in our quest to help autistic youth live their life to the fullest. Our aim is to get them to be independent,” said Mohd Adli.
National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom) chairman Julian Wong, 43, welcomes Mohd Adli’s efforts and agrees that the farming project can benefit people with autism.
“Besides earning money, farming activities can help these special individuals develop social and communication skills, independence, and encourage inclusivity,” Wong said.
He admits that job opportunities are few for young adults with autism due to doubts about their capabilities.
“Employers do not have the neccesary knowledge and skills to manage workers’ autism, which makes adjusting to the workplace challenging.
“Stress, expectations around productivity, and social situations can be overwhelming or frustrating for autistic people,” shared Wong, who has three children. His 14-year-old son has Asperger’s syndrome.
To prepare autistic people for the working world, Nasom offers many vocational training programmes such as baking, crafting, and farming. In addition, Nasom is trying to work with hospitality companies to develop training programmes in culinary arts and housekeeping for neurodivergent young adults.
“If they are unable to cope academically, we emphasise other skills that can help them be self-sustaining. We are working towards setting up a residential programme for young adults with autism in Bandar Puteri Klang in Klang.
“We hope to provide some respite for their family and, at the same time, encourage autistic people to learn how to be independent.
“Life is unpredictable. It is important to prepare them with some financial security for their future. Social enterprises are one way to empower them and help them be more capable. “Hopefully, they can earn some money and move towards independence,” Wong concluded.