A father’s love for his autistic son led him to leave his job and open a cafe to teach youths to be independent and earn an income.
Located at the iM4u Sentral in Puchong, the Autism Cafe Project provides hope to those aged over 17 years with autism or special needs.
“I have no regrets leaving my job to do this full-time.
“If I don’t do this now, when will I ever do it?” asked Mohd Adli Yahya, 52, who used to be an executive director of Standard Chartered Foundation.
His son, Muhammad Luqman Shariff, 18, was the catalyst as he feared what the future would hold for him.
“I have six children but they will have their own lives and families to worry about.
“Who is going to take care of him when my wife and I are gone?
“He has to be independent, even if he becomes a dishwasher. Maybe he won’t be fully independent but he should be able to earn a living,” said Mohd Adli.
At first, like any other parent, he was devastated when doctors told him of Luqman’s condition.
“I went to 16 doctors as I was in denial that he is autistic.
“I remember a doctor saying something that made me accept the fact and I broke down in tears. By then he was about 10 or 11 years old,” he said.
Mohd Adli added that although there were many training programmes for children with autism or special needs, there was still a gap that needs to be filled.
“Yes, they do provide training and life skills but who will provide them employment?
“They have to compete with the able-bodied. So, employers would be more inclined to hire us rather than them,” he said.
Mohd Adli demonstrated how Luqman could greet people and wash the dishes until they were squeaky clean.
“It may seem small but it is an achievement for them to complete such tasks including tying their shoelaces and holding a plate correctly,” he said.
Although they only opened last August, autistic young adults working at the cafe have shown tremendous improvement.
One of them is Neo Baker, 15, who was in high spirits and keen to strike up a conversation.
Months ago, his father Tom Baker would never have dreamed this was possible.
“He has improved significantly since starting here a few months ago.
“He is much more confident in approaching people and talking to them compared to before.
“I’m very proud of his progress,” said Baker, a British national who moved to Malaysia two years ago.
“We are very happy here. The family bond is strong here and people are much more disciplined compared to back home,” he said.
The ex-marine believes Neo has more opportunities to grow in Malaysia.
“There is a lot more empathy here and he has a good support system.
“In England, he craved good friends,” said Baker.
Neo said in England, he felt people were friends with him out of sympathy.
“People here are genuine and I’m much happier.
“They don’t judge or treat me differently from others,” he said.
Elvin Lee Lai Teck, 58, and Emillia Lau, 56, are also happy with the progress their son Adam Lee Wei Meng, 23, has made.
Elvin said Adam was diagnosed with hypothyroidism at a young age and this impeded his development and he found it challenging to communicate with others.
“He was working in a packaging place but did not like it.
“Now, we can see how happy Adam is and he looks forward to coming here every Thursday and Friday,” he said.
His wife added that they found comfort in meeting other parents who understood their circumstances.
“We have a good support group we can turn to in times of need,” she said.
When asked what he loved most about being at the cafe, the soft-spoken Adam, with a wide beam spreading across his face, said: “I love to serve customers and meet new people.”
Mohd Adli pairs youths with low- and high-functioning autism together.
He said high-functioning autism youths might appear normal but they have difficulty in communicating and solving calculations.
Those with low-functioning autism can understand instructions but might have difficulty following through or are slow in responding.
“This method has been highly effective as those with high-functioning autism can guide their partner and give him confidence in completing a task,” he said.
Mohd Adli added that those who were unable to come to the cafe made cookies at home under the guidance of their families.
“We sell what they produce at the cafe,” he said, adding that they included Cadbury cookies, kuih kapit and kuih ros.
They also offer catering, serving food such as nasi lemak and roti jala for events.
On his long-term plans, Mohd Adli’s dream is for the cafe to have a permanent location and stand on its own.
“We do not have much financial resources and we are hoping investors will provide space and cutlery for the cafe,” he said.
iM4u Brand Management Group director Tan Shyue Wern said it was a pilot project to help people with special needs.
“We personally see a lot of difference in the young people working at the cafe.
“Take Luqman for example. He was very reserved initially and his social skills have improved a lot.
“We hope Mohd Adli will be able to set up his own cafe that will benefit the community,” he said.
The cafe is located at iM4U Sentral, Jalan TPP 1/7, Taman Perindustrian Puchong, Puchong, Selangor.
For details, call Mohd Adli at 012-349 0813.