As Luqman Shariff grew into a strapping young adult, Mohd Adli Yahya’s concern over his autistic son’s future prompted him to leave the corporate world and start Autism Project Cafe, writes Tan Bee Hong
THE glass door opens and two girls walk in. “Welcome,” say the three guys behind the counter.
Just an ordinary scene in any cafe? Probably, except that Autism Project Cafe is no ordinary cafe and the trio, Luqman Shariff, 18, Adam Lee, 24, and Amzar Ahmad, 21, are autistic.
When the customers approach the counter, one of them rattles off what they have to offer. Nasi lemak, fried bihun, fried rice and roti jala are on the menu today.
While Luqman and Adam are practically “veterans” on the job since the cafe opened last August, it is Amzar’s first day here and to boost his confidence, his mum is allowed to stay for the day.
The cafe is a labour of love for Luqman’s father, Mohd Adli Yahya, 53, who gave up his job as executive director of Standard Chartered Foundation to start Autism Project Cafe.
“I had to plan for Luqman,” says Adli of the second of his six children. “My wife and I won’t be around forever to take care of him and his siblings will grow up and have families of their own.”
Even if the siblings are willing to take on the task, Adli feels there is a need to “minimise” the time Luqman spends with them.
“If he has a day job, he will be occupied and away for a few hours each day,” he says, recalling a time when he himself was so tired that he desperately hoped someone would offer to take over so that he could take a rest, even if it was only for a couple of hours.
As we talk, Amzar carefully pours a cup of coffee for me. He is a bit hesitant, but this is his first day after all. Adli gives a few clear instructions in a soft voice, pointing out the containers of sugar and creamer. Then his face lights up to see Amzar managing to do accordingly.
At just RM2, this is regular coffee and I help myself to creamer and sugar. Only brown sugar is available.
“We use quality ingredients here. Our rice is the low-starch variety and we use pink Himalayan rock salt,” says Adli, whose wife does all the cooking at home. The food is transported to the cafe daily.
“We offer a small menu on rotation basis: Nasi lemak — oh, you have to try the sambal; it’s really very good — noodles, fried rice, roti jala, fried eggs, toast and spaghetti with meatballs.”
For Luqman, the lessons in patience continue at home where he is entrusted with stirring the sambal on the stove.
“This teaches him to be focused at work as he has to keep stirring,” says Adli who is happy with how much more communicable his son has become. “You know, he is great at washing dishes and all our plates are squeaky clean.”
The interior of Autism Project Cafe is small, with an island work station and bar-style seating around it as well as more seating along two sides.
It is only 11am but there is a constant trickle of customers, some to eat and others to “tapau” lunch. These regulars know the cafe closes at noon. Most seem to know Luqman and Adam who are equally happy to see familiar faces.
The food is nothing fancy but tasty and, as Adli points out earlier, the sambal is excellent. It’s not the wet, oily type but rather a semi-dry sambal that is bursting with aroma and flavour.
Prices are reasonable at RM2 for coffee/tea and RM3 for fried rice, fried noodles and nasi lemak. Add a fried egg for an additional RM1. Customers can also have toast, butter cake and kuih tayap.
In one corner of the cafe are jars of kuih kapit (some filled with chocolate spread) and other cookies for sale.
OUTSIDE CATERING TOO
Adli’s plan is to eventually have a committee take over the running of the cafe and to train the autistic young adults for jobs outside the cafe.
“It’s when they have to compete in the open market that difficulties arise. Understandably, employers will prefer to not hire autistic people,” he says.
“I too have had my ups and downs. Sometimes, I feel like giving up but when I look at these children, I am motivated to cling on. Like the time when I was alone with Luqman and he told me ‘Luqman sayang bapa’ — it was such an emotional moment for me.”
He hopes to get more outside catering jobs. Unless it is an early morning breakfast event, he brings the children along to help serve the food.
“It’s good for them to be able to interact with more people,” he says. “More jobs will mean more work available for the children which will definitely enhance their training.”
The cafe is open to the public. Just inform the guard at iM4U Sentral that you’re going to the special cafe. Adli also hopes more people will patronise the cafe to experience for themselves what autism is about as this will give the public a better understanding of the condition.
“I was in total denial when I first learnt that Luqman was autistic. He was about 2 then. At that time, even some doctors didn’t know much about autism. They just told me Luqman was ‘lambat sikit’ (slow) and I was happy to accept that. But things didn’t get better,” he recalls.
“So I tried to find out more and I read references to autism that listed the exact symptoms that Luqman was exhibiting, such as how he did not make eye contact and he would line up toys in very precise orders.
“At one stage, he would not even enter the house but would sit outside and wait patiently until he was told to go in. There were times when I lost my temper with him and I regretted those moments.”
Patience is the key when dealing with autistic children.
Adli says: “It’s no good losing your patience with them. They cannot understand why you are upset with them. What may seem like ordinary stuff to us, such as washing dishes, are really huge achievements for them.”
Meanwhile, a couple on leave from Christchurch, New Zealand, is helping Adli with training for the boys.
Muzzariaton and her husband, Rosli Rahman, patiently remind Luqman, Adam and Amzar to greet the customers and to make sure the plates and cups are properly dried after they are cleaned.
It started when a friend asked the couple if they could help a boy from Selayang who hadn’t been out of the house for 10 years. The couple has experience with working with autistic children back in Christchurch.
“The boy slept in the daytime and woke when everyone else was asleep. He was afraid to come out in the daytime. We started taking him out, very slowly and now he has enough confidence to actually leave the house,” says Muzza who adds that they are now helping another family where all three children are autistic.
Adli’s eyes shine with pride when he tells me about one of the boys who had worked at Autism Project Cafe in the early months.
“Hon Kit came to us an insecure boy. He was an introvert. But now, he has acquired enough confidence to apply for a job outside,” he says.
Meanwhile, Adli is negotiating with a hotel chain to secure full-time employment for some of the young adults.
“Adam is definitely ready to work outside; so is Luqman,” he points out.
“It doesn’t matter what the boys can do. Even if Luqman can only wash dishes — and he is very good at that — I’m happy.”
As for Adam, ever since his parents brought him to Autism Project Cafe, he has looked forward to Thursdays and Fridays, the days he gets to work there.
“I enjoy talking to people and I like to serve customers,” he says shyly.
His mum first found out about Autism Project Cafe through a friend and decided to bring Adam, the elder of two sons, there.
“On days that I stay at home, it’s boring. But I help mum with housework, cleaning the dishes and the house. And I like to draw, with pencil or paint,” he adds cheerfully.
AUTISM CAFE PROJECT
Ground floor, iM4U Sentral, Jalan TTP1/7, Taman Perindustrian Puchong, Selangor
TEL: 03-8064 4488 or Mohd Adli 012-349 0813.
HOURS: 8.30am to noon on weekdays only. Outside catering available
FOOD: Home-cooked food
PICK: Nasi lemak
PAY: From RM2 for coffee/tea to RM3 for noodles and rice
MOOD: Cheerful cafe
SERVICE: Polite and friendly
I SAY: Go give it a try