Opening minds and work opportunities for people with autism

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
25-year-old cafe assistant Xavier Yap at Pathlight's Professor Brawn cafe. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — 21-year-old Pathlight student Jamie Goh used to speak in whispers while serving meals to customers, during the first few nerve-wracking days of her internship at her school’s cafe. 

Fast forward three months later, the final-year vocational track student now brims with confidence. Goh has taken on more customer-facing tasks, such as taking orders, beyond her original job scope, which mostly kept her behind the counter.

What used to be frightening tasks have become a standard routine for her.  

“My favourite part is serving customers, especially after I heat up one of the pastries – I take the initiative to serve to customers. I am able to serve food as long as I remember which food goes to which table,” said the soft-spoken Goh, who has autism.

Goh is one of 10 Pathlight students who are undergoing training at the Professor Brawn cafe at its main Ang Mo Kio campus. The cafe, which started operations in June, is the first outlet under its brand to be open to members of the public. 

Under the guidance of job coaches, these interns work alongside a group of 10 front-line staff. Around half are also adult trainees on the autism spectrum linked up by the Employability and Employment Centre (E2C), a service under the Autism Resource Centre which also manages Pathlight.

Job coaches will first assess the tasks needed to be done before simplifying them for their students.

Sarah Ng, 42, one of the coaches, told Yahoo News Singapore that such steps are necessary to help the students cope better with an unfamiliar work environment.

“When they step into a new worksite, they are usually quite anxious, because for them their experience and context have always been school and worksites in school settings,” Ng said.

“Everything is new to them – expectations, social communications, and the structure of the whole place are very confusing.”

Misconceptions about autism

In Singapore, the lack of awareness as well as misconceptions surrounding autism tend to impede progress towards inclusivity in the workplace, Ng stressed. Some people wrongly assume that people with autism cannot contribute and work like others.

Supervisors can make accommodations to ease those with autism into their work, such as giving a specific schedule of tasks and a clearer set of instructions, said Ng. These can include instructions with visuals or scripts as references for those in client-facing roles.

Companies here can also hire specialised job coaches to supervise adults with autism or provide related training to supervisors, she added.

Echoing the sentiment, Joyce Tey, 41, an operation manager at Pathlight’s Professor Brawn cafe, stressed that such training and support are necessary.

Increasingly, supervisors are expanding the job scope of their subordinates with autism based on individual capabilities, said the former E2C job coach.

For instance, Tey tasked 25-year-old cafe assistant Xavier Yap, who was diagnosed with autism when he was five, to tally the cafe’s month-end inventory.

“He is perfect for (the task) because he is very detail-oriented – his end-month inventory is perfect. He enjoys doing it,” she explained.

21-year-old final-year vocational track student Jamie Goh at Pathlight's Professor Brawn cafe. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)

Like Goh, Yap initially struggled with social interactions due to anxiety, and avoided eye contact and kept a straight face. He would also be reluctant to fulfill last-minute job requests. 

Now, a more confident Yap “can do everything, except managerial tasks” and hopes one day to become a cafe trainer for others like himself.

Tey also encouraged Yap to come up with recipes for drinks, after observing the latter’s passion for mixing and matching beverages.

Within a few days, he gave Tey a stack of 30 recipes. With the help of long-time community partner Starbucks, two drinks concocted by Yap – the Caramel Macchiato Cookie Freeze, and the Vanilla Caramel Cookie Freeze – are now on sale at the cafe.

“He is very happy as long as we put the things (created by him) on the menu,” said Tey.

Within each work team, Tey stressed the importance of building rapport and balancing the needs of staff members of varying capabilities. 

“The supervisor has to play an important role in how much accommodation to give...for instance, last-minute instructions,” said Tey.

More inclusive work practices

41-year-old Joyce Tey, an operation manager at Pathlight’s Professor Brawn cafe. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore)

Such considerations are increasingly important in line with increasing calls for workplaces and schools in Singapore to be more inclusive to meet growing demand.

One in 150 children here have autism, a higher rate than the World Health Organisation's global figure of one in 160 children, according to the government's third Enabling Masterplan unveiled in 2016.

Things are slowly improving as more workplaces in Singapore adopt inclusive practices. Three years ago, the E2C partnered 20 employers to provide work opportunities to people with autism.

This has increased to more than 30 this year, spanning industries from education, healthcare, food & beverage, technological, to urban farming, said a spokesperson.

Mount Elizabeth Hospital, which started partnering the E2C this year, currently has three staff linked via the centre working as pharmacy healthcare assistants.

The hospital hopes to explore opening up roles in the hospital laboratory and other clinical areas at its premises, said its Chief Executive Officer Dr Noel Yeo.

“(We) hope to bring onboard more staff by next year. We are willing to explore more roles with the E2C as long as the staff have the right attitude and are able to adapt to the job, with the help of their job coaches,” added Yeo.

Fairmont Singapore, which has partnered Pathlight for the past two years, provides work attachments in its laundry, housekeeping and stewarding departments for students.

Future plans for the partnership include increasing the hotel’s hiring intake from the school and offering diverse work arrangements, ranging from short attachments to longer internships, said Fairmont Singapore & Swissôtel The Stamford’s assistant manager (talent & culture) Ashley Goh.

“It not only provides opportunities for students to experience working in the hospitality industry and equips them with the necessary skill sets, but also opens up the gateway to a full-time position at the end of their internship,” said Goh. 

Late September, a second public Professor Brawn cafe started operations at the Enabling Village, where 50 per cent of its staff have special needs, such as hearing impairment, mild intellectual disability, and autism. 

The cafe aims to train 30 more special needs youths and adults over the next two years.

Pathlight principal Linda Kho noted that 75 per cent of students who graduated from the Vocational Track have moved on to further vocational skills training and internships, with some of them eventually placed for employment training and employment.

“We will continue to partner with more organisations to discover more opportunities for persons on the autism spectrum to maximise their potential in life,” said Kho.

More Singapore stories:

Lower school fees at selected Special Education schools from 2020

Resident homes embrace multi-sensory spaces to help people with dementia

Singapore is far from being 'inclusive' for special needs children: industry professionals