CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Look at what they can do not what they can’t

HONG KONG (SE): As part of the ninth World Autism Awareness Day on April 2 employers are being urged to give autistic people an opportunity in the workplace.

Nicky Chan Wing-cheung, the manager of the Caritas Lok Mo Integrated Vocational Training Centre, says that experience has shown that many people with autism have proven they can be reliable employees and capable of undergoing training for a variety of jobs in which they have turned out to be valuable assets.

Autism is a disorder characterised by impaired social interaction in both verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as restrictive and repetitive behaviour. It is currently being given increased attention by researchers and rights advocates.

But for many adults suffering from the disorder, nothing is more significant in their lives than a stable job, as it gives them dignity and a regular income.

Chan is confident in encouraging employers. “Give them more chances. Just look at their ability to fulfill the job requirements first,” he advises.

The manager of the vocational training centre told the Sunday Examiner that autistic people have a lot to offer employers, as most of them are highly responsible and they cherish their job opportunities.

He also stressed that with proper training they are capable of meeting job requirements.

In addition, the constant support that the Caritas centre offers assists companies in managing their trainees. Chan believes that they can be a valuable asset to any enterprise once they have adjusted to the job, because they are extremely loyal.

From what he observes in places that have joined tailor-made corporate-link projects, the autistic trainees can do a lot for team spirit among the whole staff, as their presence constantly reminds people of the importance of being caring.

“While care and concern can be limited in the workplace, people tend to show concern for our trainees because of their special needs,” Chan said.

He added that the honest and straightforward way of communication the trainees have can help create a happy work environment. “It has already been proven in worldwide studies that diversity helps team development,” he pointed out.

Chan said that the strength that autistic people can offer is the basic ability to communicate with others, a high sense of responsibility and a good memory. But their downside is they are relatively weak in problem-solving or dealing with unexpected situations.

Vocational training targets industries that have regular routines and clear guidelines, as these support autistic people in meeting job requirements.

The Caritas Lok Mo Integrated Vocational Training Centre deals with highly functional autistic or mentally-challenged people who can work responsibly in different aspects of the hospitality industry or in warehousing.

Especially suitable jobs include theme park hosts, school janitors, waiters or housekeepers, assistants in bakeries, or to cooks or programmers, as well as laundry workers and in the clerical, arts and design field.

Chan said after an initial assessment at the centre, which ensures the applicants have the ability to complete the training, they can choose both major and elective subjects for a three-year training course according to their interests.

The centre also provides vocational support services through a network of employers who consider the trainees capable of handling their jobs.

The centre conducts occasional simulated pre-vocational training targeting specific positions in enterprises which have joined its corporate-link projects programme.

Chan said that in the past three years, Seven-Eleven has hired 28 people with autism or mental-challenges in its central warehouse and 27 of them are still working around a three-shift rote schedule. Five with high-functional autism have been there for more than a year.

“It is remarkable for so many trainees to work together and sustain a job. Before joining this corporate programme, some had difficulty in sustaining jobs,” Chan said.

Seven-Eleven plans to take on more trainees in the future.

“We refer our trainees to interviews only when they are capable of handling the job. In this way, the employment rate is relatively high,” Chan explained.

Caritas’ vocational counsellors regularly visit the workplace. The staff from both organisations look at performance levels and figure out how to support the trainees.

Caritas staff also share with their supervisory and frontline colleagues on how to give instructions to and communicate with people with autism and intellectual challenges.

Chan admitted that some high-functioning autistic trainees, with better academic qualifications, do tend to quit jobs which do not fulfill their expectations or have future prospects.

However, Seven-Eleven does have a job satisfaction programme which upgrades the work level from time to time according to ability, and gives monetary incentives based on performance.

He disclosed that the salaries of quite a few trainees are already more than $10,000 a month, which makes both the trainees and their families feel that positive development does occur through employment.

During work hours, the centre is allowed to conduct group training sessions on further improving social skills, managing a regular salary and ensuring workplace safety.

It is always Chan’s hope that employers will provide a supportive environment by assigning a mentor or buddy to trainees to give appropriate guidance, which can help them adjust to the work environment.

Employers are also welcome to approach the centre and let them know if they are experiencing difficulties.

Chan told of an autistic trainee at Seven-Eleven who applied for compassionate leave because his mother had passed away. But his supervisor found his behaviour worrying, because he showed no outward sign of deep sorrow or emotion, so she contacted the centre for help.

A social worker came immediately to provide the trainee with an outlet for his grief, as well as speak to his family.

In feedback to the centre, some supervisors say trainees do not know how to follow procedures in applying for sick or annual leave, which has to be followed up too.

Chan also pointed out that parents must have realistic expectations about what their children can handle.

He said that the parents of some autistic people with higher academic qualifications may hope they can work in an office. However, that demands the ability to handle unexpected situations which is their weak point.

Chan added some parents say their children get upset when spoken to harshly by supervisors and he has to remind them that even in a caring working environment, they must be prepared for criticism if they cannot meet reasonable requirements.

He encourages parents to approach Caritas first if there are problems and let the staff look into the matter with them.

He stressed that trainees are repeatedly told during the three-year training that they will face big changes in life when they go to work. “They are told that work is work. They have to be involved and make real improvement. They have to be polite and tough.”

Chan said the centre is happy to have long-term relationships with corporate partners, as they enable follow up on the progress of early graduates, even though they are no longer part of the programme. “We never mind doing extra work as long as we can help,” he emphasised.


He also hopes that employers who are happy with the performance of autistic employees will spread the word and encourage others to hire them, as their positive feedback is the most powerful proof of autistic people’s ability to hold a job.

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