Joshua Teow shows that adults with autism can be gainfully employed if given the opportunity writes Meera Murugesan
EVERY night 25 year old Joshua Teow sets his alarm clock for 5.15am.
In the morning, he makes his way to the LRT station from his house in Wangsa Melawati.
At the station, Teow catches an early train to his workplace at Uniqlo in Empire Shopping Gallery, Subang. He starts work at 8am in the fitting room area of the clothing store.
He helps to fold or hang up clothes tried by customers and also assist with certain aspects of alteration.
Teow has a 30 minute break at 10am and a one hour lunch break just like any other employee.
At 6pm, he takes the train back. To many passengers Teow probably comes across as another working adult making the commute home.
Few would realise that this young man’s daily routine is the result of a long and challenging journey, both for him and his family.
Teow has autism but thanks to the unrelenting efforts of his parents, he is today gainfully employed and independent to a large degree.
His story gives hope to parents raising children with special needs, especially those diagnosed with autism.
THE LONG ROAD
Teow was enrolled in a national school up until Year 3, although he was a child locked in his own world due to his condition.
He later entered a private school which believes in inclusive education and remained there until he was 14 although he could not perform academic related tasks.
After he left school, his parents placed him in a skills training centre. He spent a year there learning simple tasks which would help him function independently, such as washing his clothes, tidying his room or cleaning the toilet.
He first started working at a company that belonged to his mother’s friend, doing general clerical work.
He also went for some training in baking and tried working in a small café but he got stressed out when there were too many customers and as a result, was often relegated to the kitchen to wash dishes, a task he didn’t take to.
He landed a position at Uniqlo in 2014, being placed initially at the brand’s outlet in KLIA2 for a year before getting transferred to the Subang branch.
Like many parents of special children, Teow’s mum, Rosemary Ku has always strived for her son to achieve some semblance of independence.
“Often, when you have a child with special needs, you can’t see into the future, you don’t even want to think that far. You can only take one step at a time,” says Ku.
Ku has always been determined not to shelter Teow. When he was 14, she sent him off alone on a flight to Sabah to visit her family there.
She prepped him on the process, telling him what to expect at every stage and Teow successfully pulled it off.
“He has an excellent memory and observes details so that makes it easier,” says Ku.
Two years ago, Teow even flew to Perth, Australia on his own to visit his aunt.
When he started working, his mother taught him to make the commute to work by train.
She also taught him how to manage money since he would be paying for his meals on his own.
It wasn’t an easy process but she persevered. Initially, Teow had no idea of how much he had paid for a meal or how much was left in his wallet.
Now, he has progressed to having his own bank account and an ATM card.
Going to work has given Teow confidence and a sense of purpose.
“As long as he’s happy and can live independently, we’re happy too. Anything else is a bonus,” says Ku.
Mazayu Kasan, a job placement officer/job coach with Cheshire Kuala Lumpur who helped Teow find employment, says having employees with autism or other disabilities within an organisation does not in any way affect work flow.
“In fact, most organisations where I have placed people with disabilities have asked me for more candidates.”
She explains that these days it’s not a challenge to find employment for the disabled but in meeting the expectations of their parents.
Some parents of disabled adults tend to be overly protective and choosy when it comes to employment for their child. They only want certain jobs which makes things challenging because that job may not suit their child’s capabilities.
Parents must adjust their expectations to their child’s abilities says Mazayu.
Adli Yahya, founder of Autism Café Project whose son, Muhammad Luqman Shariff has autism, says not all children with autism have great abilities but ability need not be something extraordinary.
“It can be something simple and you need to find out what it is and move on from there,” he pointed out during the Project Haans Autism Awareness seminar at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur.
Autism Café Project is a social enterprise which is helping those with the condition to start small businesses based on their respective skills so they can earn an income, fund their own needs and make their way towards independent living.
IN 2013, Gamuda launched its Project Differently Abled and since then 20 individuals with autism have been employed by the organisation in various sections.
The success of this inspired Gamuda to establish its Enabling Academy, which conducts an employment transition programme that trains and places young adults with autism into companies that embrace diversity and inclusion in their workforce.
This three month programme comprises two courses designed to equip trainees with relevant soft skills and practical job training that are essential for employability and they are placed in Gamuda’s partner companies upon completion of training.
The opportunity to work gives young adults with autism the chance to mingle and be one of us, their learning curve increases and their confidence blooms, says Hong Kok Siong, project leader of the Enabling Academy.
“The feedback we get from parents is that there are amazing changes in their children. It’s something money cannot buy.”
And employers only need to make minor, reasonable changes within their organisations in order to absorb employees with autism.
Hong stresses that it is not a process that’s difficult or going to challenge the very structure of an organisation.
And in many ways, having people with autism on board benefits the typical employees.
They not only learn empathy and patience but also to improve their management style. For example, they learn how to give more structured, specific instructions about tasks to be completed.
At Gamuda itself, people with autism work in sections such as engineering, finance, human resource and information technology. Some have degrees or post graduate qualifications.
“Often, we assume those with autism have to learn from us but in fact we can learn from them too.”
Gamuda partner companies which initially took in one candidate from the Enabling Academy now want more because they see the benefit in having people of different neuro diversity within their organisation.
Employing people with autism or disabilities brings a different perspective to any organisation says Keith Bates a researcher, developer and consultant in supported employment who was in Malaysia recently to speak at a seminar on training, job guidance and support for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) organised by the Enabling Academy.
“It changes the way work is and there is evidence to suggest it improves morale, saves money and increases productivity,” he says of employing those with autism.
Yet, there are many misconceptions about this subject.
Some employers assume it’s difficult, will distract other employees or cost money.
Bates says when we make changes within the workplace to support one or two people with disabilities, it actually benefits all employees.
For example, we can change the way we interview people for jobs, think about different ways to do supervision or appraisal, have fewer or shorter meetings at work or improve the way we communicate with each other, all of which benefits other employees as well.
Starbucks Malaysia which currently employs a small number of employees within the autism spectrum, first assesses them and takes into consideration their skills before placing them in barista positions to perform tasks such as beverage and food preparation.
This not only empowers them but also allows them to feel as equal and included as their peers says June Beh, director of partner resources and compliance, Starbucks Malaysia and Brunei.
Starbucks she says has long valued diversity and inclusion as part of its mission and guiding principles. This includes hiring those from varied backgrounds and working with them to find success in their careers.
And there aren’t many changes or measures that need to be put into place for this to happen.
“This is because our system of training is all about repeatable routine, and several autism organisations have mentioned to us that the best way for individuals with autism to learn is through repetition.”
Starbucks also assigns a “buddy” to the employee concerned to help coordinate his needs and make the work experience as smooth as possible.
Beh stresses that their employees with autism are always happy and motivated and this has rubbed off on the people they work with, as well as customers.
“It is the inclusion of these diverse experiences and perspectives that create a culture of empowerment, one that fosters innovation, economic growth and new ideas.”