Autism Cafe Project (Exclusive Interview): A father’s love wins again !

Autism Cafe Project, a project bloomed out of a father’s love not only for his autistic son , but also for youths with autism. 

It’s already 2020 and I believe the number of people jumping on the bandwagon in creating a safe and conducive environment for people with disabilities has been soaring rapidly.

I’m absolutely sure that you would have come across (unless you are living under the rock) some of the largest fast-food restaurants and foundations which welcomed people with special needs to be a part of their family. Malaysians were pleased as punch when Starbucks launched its first Starbucks Signing Store in Kuala Lumpur, hiring deaf baristas, and the anecdote did not end there. 

It led to more discoveries such as the McDonald’s in Cheras which embraced a youth with down-syndrome by providing a job. As I mentioned, it is a never-ending tale and there’s one which particularly caught our attention at The Cool Bears. 

Yes, it’s none other than The Autism Cafe Project !

Background of the founder 

Mr Adli Yahya, 56, is the unsung hero of Autism Cafe Project Malaysia (ACP), a social enterprise which began to operate in 2016. The Kota Bharu origin, who is a father for 6, ended his career in a private-sector group to set up the cafe

The idea behind this project

“I was always worried about my son, Luqman. We are not going to live forever. I might have another 10-15 years to live, but Luqman has a long way to go. When we are not around, who’s going to look after him?”

– Adli Yahya

Luqman, 20, is autistic and non-verbal. Non-verbal autism is a subset of autism where the person is unable to speak. Just like how a parent would think, Adli was concerned about the future of his son, as Luqman being employed seemed quite impossible for him. 

That is when the idea of setting up a cafe for those with autism sparked on him. He strongly believes that through such cafes, it will be a rewarding experience for others like Luqman to be independent and make a living. Not only that, but this cafe may also be a pathway to open many eyes and ears of the community about autism.

Services offered

Besides running the cafe, the Autism Cafe Project also does catering. Their main dishes are Nasi Kerabu Kuning, Ayam Percik Kelate and Tauhu Bergedil. They prepare dishes per request as well. 

You want ‘Nasi Lemak’ or ‘Ikan Percik Kelate’ instead of the chicken? No problem, just place your orders and they are ready to serve you!

All the dishes are made and prepared with love by those autistic teenagers. Luqman’s outstanding Roti Jala and Nasi Kerabu, Nina’s masterpieces which are Kueh Nona and Kueh Kochi, Haziq’s signature Oats Cookies, Muzaffar’s yummy and delicious muffins and the list does not stop there. 

Training for teenagers

It all began from assigning them with simple and basic tasks such as making tea, boiling water and frying eggs. As time passed by, Adli saw the potential in those kids. They all have more than what it took. 

“I didn’t want to waste their precious talent and potential. They are capable of doing bigger things. So, why not give them a chance?”

– Adli Yahya

That is when Adli took the decision to hand over bigger responsibilities such as preparing meals for caterings. And yes absolutely, they will be assisted by their parents. 

Autism Cafe Project never requests for money from parents who would like to enrol their children, instead, they pay those youths an allowance of RM50 per month. It was during the early stages of this cafe where they were paid RM50, however, people were inconsiderate enough to label them as cruel. 

We train the boys here and once if they are able to find any jobs with insurance coverage and whatsoever, by all means, they can join. We won’t keep them”.

– Adli Yahya

It was really hurtful for Adli when people used such words as this project took off from scratch. Adding to it, Adli continued by saying that when he started this project he had a business plan and he did not want to be like other foundations or NGO’s which depend on donations. 

ACP welcomes donation but the goal is to make the project as self-sustainable as possible in the long run. 

Challenges faced

Adli’s journey to where he is right now utterly wasn’t a bed of roses. He has faced a number of challenges and obstacles that have been only making him more strong and unstoppable. 

  • Relationship with his son, Luqman – When Luqman was first diagnosed with Autism, Adli could not accept it. It was a very classic case issue and it was a tough journey for both Luqman and Adli to be comfortable with one another again.  

Adli highlighted that “I just want to erase those memories and move on, you never realise that once you were there as a ‘not so nice’ dad”.

  • Individuals who had a motive : He came across a number of boorish, uncivilised individuals who actually bad-mouthed him and even labelled him as a man who is doing all this for fame. Autism Cafe Project’s Facebook page was also once brought down by cruel individuals.  

“ I am not doing it for fame. I’m 56 and I’m already towards the end. It’s all for the boys!”, Adli highlighted.

  • The fund – He was constantly questioned where the money and fund go since it is a social enterprise. But even before that, this cafe project has been certified by MAGIC, which means they will be monitored all the time. 
  • Sales during MCO – To be frank, Adli told us that there was no revenue and the income was literally zero in March. Absolutely, he didn’t want the boys to go through loses and he came up with a new strategy where he focused more on delivery. They lucked out as they received a lot of orders and people have been supporting them ever since that. 

Unforgettable Moments

For Adli, it was definitely the moments that he shared with the boys there. Some of their stories really made him teared up. One of the boys was asked to work 8 hours non stop with no pocket money given meanwhile a girl was only paid Rm130 per month. 

“The world is cruel and many of them are taking advantage of people with disabilities. I mean how could you? By right we are the ones who should be uplifting them instead of crushing their spirit”. He added. 

Apart from that, he also shared with us a success story of a boy who was previously attached to this cafe. Adli was amused to have witnessed his incredible change and improvements when he bumped into him in the bakery section of Tesco. 

“When the boy first walked in, he would react strongly when he is being touched and would reply no more than a word, but now he is able to communicate, this is already an achievement.”

– Adli Yahya

Besides having clicked the proud button, Adli emphasised that he is extremely happy knowing the fact that he was the reason for someone’s life to take a complete turnover in a positive way. 

Luqman and the impact of the cafe

From unable to able 

On the other hand, Luqman is very obedient. He has a very pure heart where he will never deny your request. For instance, no matter how hungry and tired Luqman is, but if he is being asked to do numerous tasks, he would still do just because we asked him to do so. That is how genuine he is, but Adli’s worries and concerns are that people out there can actually misuse this chance. 

This cafe project has left a huge impact on Luqman’s development as well. When Luqman started helping out in the cafe, he was solely depending on the instruction to carry out a task. 

Let’s say if you ask him to fill up the glass with water, he would, but till the water overflows because you did not ask him to stop. 

However, as time flies by, Luqman is now capable of filling up the glass within the limit or packing a dish with the correct quantity.

Awareness among people

Adli stated that compared to those days, the awareness among the public on autism has been rising tremendously. Day by day more people are concerned about autism except for those who are in rural areas. The amount of exposure and alertness in remote areas is still disappointing. However, acceptance wise, many sectors such as the media, food and beverage and industries should start up their game by spreading more awareness and creating a pathway for people with autism. 

Thought on schools

As for Luqman, he is non-functional. He won’t respond to school and school isn’t bad. Typical schools don’t fit for Luqman. When Adli brought Luqman to the cafe and gave him responsibilities, there were enormous changes in him. 

A piece of advice

As a dad with abundance of experience, we asked him his piece of advice for parents with autistic kids and this is Adli’s reply 

‘Manage your expectations. You can’t expect your kid to be a CEO. Don’t pressure your kids and see where they belong to’.

– Adli Yahya

Shout-outs / Appreciation

First of all, Adli would like to acknowledge iM4U (now RAKITA) who provided a spot for their previous cafe, however, they could not continue their cafe as they needed the spot back. Nevertheless, they were very supportive of a highly strategic location. Although the Autism Cafe project was not that popular, people still had the chance to know more about them. The cafe is now located at the 3rd Floor of SACC Mall, Shah Alam.

Next, the great Syed Azmi did tremendous help by posting about their cafe on his social media. TV3 also played their part by filming a Hari Raya Ad in 2017 where they eventually achieved good media coverage. 

Do you have anything else to say? 

Do not judge a book by its cover, it’s cliche but it’s absolutely true.  Sometimes you see them as “broken”, far from perfect. However, having gone through the journey with Luqman made me see things differently. He doesn’t lie, he works with honesty and has a pure innocent heart. Who is perfect? Certainly not us! 

– Adli Yahya

Future plans

Before even putting our feet in a new restaurant, it is undeniable that we will start peeping through from the window of our cars to see if the environment is clean or is it fully occupied with people. We often question ourselves, “Do they take hygiene into consideration when preparing food?”, “Is it safe to eat here?” and so on. 

Adli Yahya is one of them as well. Therefore, the Autism Cafe Project is trying to set up a professional kitchen for the boys. As this cafe is being brought to another level, some aspects should be taken into consideration such as the hygiene and cleanliness in preparing the dishes. They have sought the assistance of Hilton Puchong to teach their boys to prepare food in a professional manner and Da Men Mall to provide the venue.

Ever since the pandemic struck our country, most of us have been pushed to an immense situation and so does this cafe. Their effort to raise funds has been gravely affected by MCO as there was practically no revenue coming in since March till May. In the midst of working hard towards their goals, they are seeking the public to crowdfund for their upcoming kitchen which is a part of this project. 

If you ever would like to make a change or put a smile on the faces of autistic youths, play your part in contributing as much as you can! No amount is a small amount, all that matters is your effort and willingness! 

Lavanyah Guna
Lavanyah Guna
I either be munching on something or curling up on the couch, no in-between, I mean besides catching deadlines obvs!

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