Employment helps create a window of opportunity for individuals with autism. Besides providing them with a chance to build their confidence, employment allows people with autism to stand on their own feet to earn a living.

Since engineering, property and infrastructure company Gamuda embarked on its Project Differently-Abled (DA) – aimed at creating employment opportunities for individuals with autism – 18 people with autism now have a brighter future. The project, initiated by Gamuda’s group managing director Datuk Lin Yun Ling, aims to harness autistic individuals’ skills and competence rather than highlighting their disability.

As an extension of the company’s diversity and inclusiveness agenda, the project’s objective is to cultivate an open-minded and diversified work culture among Gamuda employees. These employees – aged between 18 and 39 years – work in various departments like human resources, trading, contracts and commercials, and group finance. Their roles include golf buggy maintenance, clerical works, IT support and programming, and environmental research.

The company also welcomes interns, and has two teenagers on the spectrum currently undergoing training with the group.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Since joining Project DA, intern Syed Rakin Syed Redzal’s morale has improved and his interpersonal skills have developed by leaps and bounds.

Syed Rakin, 18, is attached to Gamuda’s Contract & Commercial department. He works four hours a week in a job that involves general clerical tasks such as photocopying, scanning and despatch. On other days, he studies at a learning centre in Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur.

Syed Rakin (centre) with mum Rina and dad Syed Redzal, who hopes more companies will step forward to offer job opportunities for individuals on the autistic spectrum like his son. — RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The Star

Syed Rakin (centre) with mum Rina and dad Syed Redzal, who hopes more companies will step forward to offer job opportunities for individuals on the autistic spectrum like his son. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

When Syed Rakin first came on board, he was timid and dependent on his colleagues. But once he got the hang of things, his confidence soared.

“I was scared to travel alone in elevators. Now I can do it without help. I enjoy delivering documents and handling the photocopy machine, too. What I like best is hanging out with grown ups,” says the friendly teen.

His mother Rina Abdul Razak, 46, said the internship has been a very positive influence in her son’s life – not least because during his internship he learnt how to make a cup of Milo by himself.

“These days, Rakin can work independently in the office and at home. He seems dedicated to any given task. It’s heart-warming to see him bursting with enthusiasm before he leaves for work,” says the homemaker and mother of five.

Syed Rakin’s father, Syed Redzal Hisham, a country manager with an oil and gas company, chips in: “When Rakin was nominated for the project, it felt like a miracle. Over the months, he has matured tremendously and shows positive development.”

Similarly, Donovan Choo, another employee in Gamuda’s Project DA, has shown positive signs of change. Choo, 27, has Asperger’s syndrome, which affects his ability to deal with changes in daily routines – Choo, for instance, could not forego his afternoon nap, which naturally made a nine to five job impossible.

It was a big change indeed to join Gamuda’s administrative department as a clerk, and at first, Choo had trouble adjusting.

However, surrounded by understanding bosses and colleagues, he has managed to fit into work routines over time, says his father, retiree Philip Choo, 61 – and “Now, his afternoon siestas are a thing of the past!”

Choo’s mother, Lim Yuet Khim, 60, is over the moon seeing the changes in him.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing Donovan return from work with a smile on his face. Thanks to Gamuda, our son has come to realise his potential,” says Lim, a director of Siloam House, a nonprofit organisation for people with intellectual disabilities.

Having Asperger’s syndrome ‘just means I am equipped with different talents,’ says Choo, pictured here attending to phone calls at work.

It’s been close to two years since Choo joined Gamuda and he is having a whale of a time at work.

“I’m enjoying myself here. People respect me and I have made many friends. I enjoy working and trying different tasks,” he says.

Having Asperger’s doesn’t make Choo that much different from the average person on the street. Like many Malaysians, he likes watching TV (wrestling and Korean dramas, specifically!) and is a great fan of P. Ramlee movies.

“Having autism does not mean I am less deserving or less capable – it just means I am equipped with different talents and I want acceptance, just like you,” says Choo, the eldest of two siblings.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong neuro-developmental condition that affects the brain. In Malaysia, about 9,000 children are born with autism every year, reports the National Autism Society of Malaysia.

People who are on this spectrum, often face challenges in social communication. They can also have restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests.

For David Foo Khee Choong, 37, communication has been his greatest stumbling block.

Yong (left) is grateful that Foo has learnt to take care of himself. — RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The Star

Yong (left) is grateful that Foo has learnt to take care of himself. Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

His mother, Karen Yong San Hoong, 67, says while her son has been working for over 18 years, he has always had issues with communication.

“The receptive and expressive part of his brain is affected so he can’t give spontaneous responses. He doesn’t express himself and needs to be prodded,” explains Yong, adding that her son’s condition was heightened when he developed seizures as an infant.

At Gamuda’s Group Human Resource department, Foo’s responsibilities include payroll data entry, scanning documents and communicating with stakeholders.

Though very reserved during his first few months at work, he has blossomed into a more confident person over the years.

“These days, I try to participate in conversations, and sometimes, I voice out my thoughts on certain issues,” he says.

Bridging the gap

Each DA employee is “profile-mapped”; that is, their strengths and interests are determined and then matched to the job that suits them best.

To enable each DA employee to fit in better at work, he or she is paired with a buddy and supervisor, who both coach him or her at the job.

To help DA colleagues be more organised at work, templates are created to assist them in carrying out their duties efficiently.

It’s a process that has served DA employee Roger Khaw well, helping him develop a sense of self-worth.

“I feel great working here. The best bit is, I’m appreciated and respected. It’s a good working environment and I learn something new each day,” says Khaw, 29, who handles data entry and filing in the accounting department.

Khaw (centre) being guided by colleague Zaiton Isa (left) and his buddy, Ng.

Khaw (centre) being guided by colleague Zaiton Isa (left) and his buddy, Ng.

His colleagues are full of praise for him, describing him as a fast learner, a perfectionist and a caring lad.

“He is a very emotional person and at times, it is hard for him to say goodbye to colleagues who leave,” says buddy Sally Ng, 25.

Another fast learner is Project DA employee Lai Yun Arn – it only took the IT staff member two years to change from being a passive and shy person to someone bursting with confidence.

“I appreciate the opportunity provided by Gamuda. I’m grateful my colleagues have guided me to fit into the work culture here and helped me improve my social skills,” says Lai, 22, who reads IT books to brush up on his knowledge.

Lai (right) working with buddy Naim on hardware inventory.

Lai (right) working with buddy Naim on hardware inventory.

Prior to her employment at Gamuda, Ungku Nur Qistina Ungku Harun Al-Rashid, 22, was home-schooled and had little exposure to the outside world.

“I was apprehensive about joining the workforce and didn’t know what to expect in the corporate environment,” says Nur Qistina, a clerk in Gamuda’s training and development department.

To welcome Qistina into the organisation, training and development assistant general manager Sim Kay Loh, 53, organised an inter-department tea party with their special staff.

“The get together helped break the ice and Qistina warmed up quickly. So far, she’s been a dedicated staff who’s focused at work, especially filing, answering calls and typing.”

But it wasn’t easy to get to this point: training and development executive Kala Balachandran says Qistina had to overcome a series of hurdles to get into the swing of things.

Nur Qistina (right) greeting workshop participant Nuraimi Alwani Noorul Azmi at the Gamuda Learning Centre. Photos: Gamuda

Nur Qistina (right) greeting workshop participant Nuraimi Alwani Noorul Azmi at the Gamuda Learning Centre. Photos: Gamuda

“Initially, she was unsure of her job and kept turning to colleagues for help. That affected our work flow. Through constant pep talks, though, she has become more independent and efficient at her job,” says Kala, 28, who serves as Qistina’s buddy.

Through the programme, Kala, too has learnt lessons, such as how to be patient with individuals with autism.

“Prior to this, I lacked knowledge on autism and didn’t know how to deal with people on the autism spectrum. Working with Qistina has been an eye-opener and I’ve learnt so much about the spectrum. It’s important to unearth their strengths to enable them to excel in their undertakings.”

Mohd Naim Yahya, Lai’s buddy, concurs: “The project has enabled me to learn a lot of things about the disorder. At the same time, it has helped me become a calmer and caring person.”

The proof is in the pudding and Gamuda’s Project DA proves that with proper support, people with ASD can lead fulfilling lives.

Syed Redzal hopes more companies will step forward to offer job opportunities for individuals with autism.

“These programmes help nurture those with disability and encourage them to assimilate into society. Hopefully, other organisations and communities will follow suit. It’s my dream that Rakin will have a stable job and stand on his two feet for a long time to come,” says Syed Redzal.