Opening minds and work opportunities for people with autism
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.