Helping people with autism integrate into the workplace
My nephew was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when he was just three years old, ticking a list of tell-tale signs including speech delay.
ASD is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how a person learns, communicates and interacts with others.
I cannot imagine the emotions that his parents went through, because daily life with a special needs child poses many unique challenges, and the need for early intervention.
That being said, what worries the parents even more is their child’s future especially job employment when he reaches adulthood.
Because of his condition, my sister is concerned that my nephew will not be able to adapt to the working environment, as well as the social stigma and ignorance of co-workers towards ASD that come along with it.
According to Otsuma Women’s University Human Relations Faculty dean Professor Hiroshi Ogawa, it is difficult for people with ASD to go directly into the employment world.
“It is a struggle for them to adapt to the ordinary work environment and they cannot understand social contexts like analysing a situation and identifying necessary and unnecessary information.
“Even though they can speak well and have a good vocabulary, many of them have communication and social skills problems, thus finding it hard to explain themselves.
“They also get so stressed by a social situation that they shut down, and because they find it hard to express their feelings and difficulties they are facing, they may suffer from depression.
“As a result, their actions and demeanour will be misunderstood by their co-workers, deemed as odd, having a strange attitude, personality and inappropriate behaviour.
“This will then lead to people with ASD being left on their own and feeling isolated,” he says, adding that they may have difficulty in adapting to changes or routine due to their rigidity and repetitive tendencies.
With the high expectations from their superior, Prof Ogawa says that an employee is expected to work hard and fast in normal working conditions.
“The person with ASD might be overwhelmed and will not be able to endure such pressure. Some of them have problems with working memory as well as multitasking because they cannot concentrate,” he says.
This is where Yayasan Gamuda’s Enabling Academy (EA) comes in, established to enable those with ASD to seamlessly integrate into the corporate world through the employment transition programme.
The three-month programme trains individuals on the autism spectrum who have gone through early intervention and a certain level of education.
It provides a holistic and comprehensive training so they are ready and well-equipped to be placed in professional jobs.
The learning centre is located in Damansara Jaya, Selangor, and there are two intakes per year, with a maximum of 10 trainees per batch to allow close monitoring and attention by the staff at the EA.
Prof Ogawa, with his illustrious career in special education, autism, supported employment and training programmes for people with learning disabilities in Japan, acts as an advisor to the EA whereby he provides expert knowledge, ideas and experiences with EA trainers on strategies and best practices to support people with ASD.
He was recently in Malaysia to speak on Employment Transition Programme for Persons with Disabilities, organised by the Social Welfare Department, Japan International Cooperation Agency, and Enabling Academy.
“The employment transition programmes at the EA consist of two courses designed to equip trainees with the relevant soft skills and practical job training essential for employability.
“The first involves trainees being taught on career management skills and basic knowledge on daily life, rules, manners at workplace, work etiquette and the appropriate way of communicating, among others.
“Trainees with professional degrees such as accounting, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science will be given work exposure related to their field of study.
“The second course is where a mock office with simulated office activities like photocopying and filing are set up for trainees to be familiarised with,” he says.
The trainers at EA are experienced job coaches with professional qualifications in special education, vocational rehabilitation and psychology, says Prof Ogawa.
“They are able to assess and profile the trainees, and identify their strengths and weaknesses to match them with suitable jobs.”
Even after the programme completes, the support team of EA trainers will continue to oversee the progress of trainees while providing advice and guidance to co-workers and supervisors until the workplace builds its own ecosystem.
The co-workers and supervisor are also required to attend a job coach training workshop to enable them to work efficiently with their new colleagues.
The EA does not just focus on skills but also helps a person with high-functioning autism understand themselves better, which is a crucial point in the training, says Prof Ogawa.
“In my opinion, many with ASD are aware of other people’s feelings, but they may have difficulty understanding the kind of effect their own behaviour and attitude have on other people.
“They know the other person is feeling uneasy but cannot see that it is their behaviour that caused the unfavourable reaction.
“So it is important that people with ASD understand themselves and are given feedback by the job coaches on their interpersonal communication skills,” he says.
The Enabling Academy aims to enable more people with autism to gain sustainable employment, and is an upscaling of Gamuda Bhd’s Project Differently-Abled that started in 2013.
To date, Gamuda has employed 20 employees with autism and the number continues to grow as more than 15 companies have committed to providing opportunities and long-term employment for graduates of the EA.