Autistic? Yes. Jobless? No

SINGAPORE - For two years, Mr Mohamed Amin Zunri stayed at home, doing tae-bo and taking walks in the nearby Bedok Reservoir Park.

The 24-year-old has moderate autism.

Vocational training he had done in the past - a six-month stint in data entry, for example, and a part-time job scanning documents at an insurance company from 2006 to 2008 - did not lead to a job.

He was "disappointed" by how "transient" these opportunities were, Mr Amin's father, Mr Mohamed Jamil, 65, said.

But there is hope.

In November last year, Mr Amin joined Autism Resource Centre's (ARC) pilot run of the Supported Employment programme.

The programme is set to go official next month, with a target intake of 32 clients.

It will serve autistic clients with up to moderate autism, with or without intellectual disabilities. Currently, they are aged from 19 to 25 years.

As one of six clients on the pilot run, Mr Amin now works in Pathlight School's cafe, helping to prepare food and drinks, clearing tables and handling cash.

He was offered the job in June this year.

Said Mr Amin, who works from 7.50am to 5pm every day: "I like work; I'm very happy to have an income."

The programme has been in the offing for two years, according to the idea that the disabled are "not seen as value-added employees", said Ms Denise Phua, president of ARC and supervisor of the Pathlight School board.

"The typical way to place them is without any preparation or training - on the part of both employer and employees."

So the programme assesses the client from the get-go to find out what his or her skills may be.

Employability training occurs next.

It is a 10-week programme at ARC or partner worksites, with up to four trials.

At Pathlight, which is under ARC, the disabled may receive training in the school's IT & Design or baking studios.

Training in office and housekeeping work is available as well.

Pathlight School has about 600 students, from the ages of five to 21.

At the same time, the disabled receive employability courses such as lessons in grooming and social skills.

At work, Mr Amin goes through a lengthy checklist, which maps out his tasks over the nine-hour period.

These include cutting fruit or making juice.

But this is not the end-all of his career.

Morale boost

"I'm a man

As the programme intends to harness the potential of its clients, the next step for Mr Amin is IT training, Ms Phua said.

The job has improved his morale.

Said Mr Jamil: "It's important to him that he's employed... He keeps on saying, 'I'm a man.'"

Another client on the pilot programme is Miss Yeo Xiang Yuan, 23.

For two years before joining to the programme, she would check the Classified ads almost every day, her mother, Madam Kwah Sin Wah, 57, said.

Miss Yeo would then cut out the adverts she was interested in and her mother would call.

But the five interviews she attended over that period of time were unsuccessful.

"At the interviews, people would notice she's not like the others," Madam Kwah said.

Eventually, her only job offer was late-night shift work at a fast-food outlet, which she rejected due to the long hours.

In the last four months that Miss Yeo has been with the Supported Employment programme, she has trained in a food factory at Woodlands, preparing frozen food.

As a result, she is "more disciplined (and) she knows what real working life is like", Madam Kwah said.

Severity of disability

But Ms Phua cautioned that not every person with a disability might be suitable for work.

This may be due to the severity of their disability or "poor work habits", she said.

And while ARC can subsidise clients from low-income families, fees must still be paid by the clients' families.

The fee details have yet to be worked out.

None of the clients on the pilot programme is being charged.

The programme is partially subsidised by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, and other donors.

It was modified according to practices at places such as TEACCH Autism Program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Two charities for the disabled that The New Paper spoke to expressed their support for the programme.

"The training methodology will definitely help in improving the quality of life for disabled clients," said MrArifeen Kamaluddin, supervisor at the Metta Day Activity Centre for the Intellectually Disabled.

Said Dr Francis Chen, president of the Association for Persons with Special Needs: "All such programmes both for training and job employability (of the disabled) are to be welcome, as they open new avenues for the employment of disabled clients."

This article was first published in The New Paper.