I find it encouraging that Starbucks is hiring clients from the Autism Resource Centre for its 100th store here ("More firms hiring people with disabilities"; last Saturday).
Although such an approach is well-intentioned, I question the wisdom of training people with autism to work in the food and beverage industry.
A cashier has to quickly work out the combination of coins and notes to provide change without making mistakes. A chef has to keep track of the status of multiple dishes and come up with ways to fulfil special requests from customers. A waiter has to record verbal orders correctly, remember who ordered what, and carry heavy dishes without accidents.
These jobs expose the weaknesses of people with autism, such as poor social skills, limited short-term memory, sensory sensitivities and an inability to multitask.
Adults with autism would find it more meaningful to work as highly paid programmers than as lowly paid staff at a semi-sheltered workplace.
There is a difference between how people in the West and in Asia view people with autism.
In Asia, people with autism are seen as deficient and requiring help to fix their weaknesses. In the West, they may be seen as having great potential, merely lacking the opportunity to develop and leverage their strengths.
Parents and teachers often underestimate their children's potential. Why should one learn to wait at tables when he can be writing computer programs?
The strengths of people with autism are maximised in technically oriented jobs with limited social interaction and enough time for contemplation.
Engineers, programmers, writers, designers and quality-control inspectors are the types of jobs we should prepare children with autism for.
We should take inspiration from successful people with autism such as animal science doctor Temple Grandin, autism expert Stephen Shore, singer Susan Boyle and model Heather Kuzmich.
It is my wish that all children with autism will have the opportunity to receive quality early intervention and to develop their talents.
Letter from Dino Trakakis
This article was published on April 24 in The Straits Times.
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