Adli Yahya was in denial for the longest time. The 54-year-old father of six recalls, sadly, the time he refused to accept the fact that his son Luqman has autism.
“I treated him so badly that, in the end, he became so scared of me. The sight of me put him in panic mode,” shares the Kelantan-born, admitting this caused a rift between him and his son, who was diagnosed with autism when he was barely two years old.
But Adli, a business graduate from UKM, eventually accepted the fact and did his best to win over Luqman’s heart.
“I got him back but he rejected me for what I had done to him … I was heartbroken,” admits the Subang Jaya-based Adli.
Fortunately, the father-son relationship was slowly restored.
Like any other father, Adli, formerly the executive director of Standard Chartered Foundation, worried for Luqman’s future, who’s now 19.
“What will happen to him when I’m not around? Jobs for him are impossible. Nobody will hire him,” Adli laments. So, he took matters into his own hands by setting up the Autism Cafe Project (ACP) in 2016.
Based in the Puchong Industrial Area, the breakfast-and-brunch cafe employs people with autism as a means to “open up opportunities for them to be productive individuals in society”.
“When we started, it was me and Luqman. Then it grew to 10. Out of the 10, four managed to find work in various companies in the Klang Valley, which is great. Currently, we have four staff and 14 part-timers.”
Adli, now an advocate for autism, says the cafe gives the employees “opportunities to be independent” by offering them training and employment.
He was quick to add that the operations of the cafe are customised to the employees’ needs. From washing dishes and wiping tables, to attending customers and sometimes even cooking, the tasks are kept simple, which Adli says is crucial.
Apart from the cafe, the Autism Cafe Project also does catering, which Adli calls the “bread and butter” of this initiative.
“We don’t want to immerse in the culture where funding is from donations. We want to work and earn our living. The more work we have, the higher the chances of getting the boys to work and earn a living on their own,” says Adli, adding that they will open a new outlet in Shah Alam soon and purchase a pick-up truck for the catering business.
The ACP also trains its employees, on a one-to-one basis, in handicraft work. “We have some who are more inclined to do craft than serving in the cafe. So we get them to make bracelets, scarves and tissue boxes, and sell them at bazaars and at the cafe itself.”
Ultimately, the dedicated father says parents must take pride in their child and keep working on them for their future.
“They have no one else but their parents. Teachers, therapists or doctors are with them for probably four hours a day. But the other days, they are with their parents. Be proud of them – even if the achievement is small, to them, it’s a huge effort,” he says.