Credit: Rainbow Centre

Every year in April, we celebrate Autism Awareness Month to shed light on and encourage inclusivity for people on the autism spectrum. While there has been no formal study on the prevalence of autism conducted in Singapore, almost 1 in 150 individuals are on the autism spectrum. 

Individuals on the spectrum have to navigate a tangled web of obstacles, especially when entering adulthood. With limited support services, post-school learning options and employment opportunities available once they graduate from special education (SPED) schools, the “Post-18 Cliff” throws persons on the spectrum into the deep end. Their difficulties to participate in mainstream society is pronounced – among those aged 15 to 64, only 31.4% were employed on average in 2021 and 2022. 

While there’s still a long way to go, we’ve made nationwide progress in supporting individuals on the spectrum. With the launch of the Autism Enabling Masterplan in 2021 by the Autism Network Singapore, a holistic guide for addressing their diverse needs highlights key areas of concern (e.g. gaining employment) and directs Singapore’s efforts for greater inclusivity. Many initiatives launched, such as Autism Resource Centre’s new employment models, Autism Association’s Day Activity Centre Without Walls and Rainbow Centre’s Micro-Business Academy paint an optimistic future for persons on the spectrum. 

Here, we spoke to Ms Jacelyn Lim, Executive Director of Autism Resource Centre and Ms Tan Sze Wee, Executive Director of Rainbow Centre for their thoughts on how to support PWDs to access open employment.

What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about people on the autism spectrum?

Ms Jacelyn Lim, Executive Director of Autism Resource Centre

Jacelyn Lim (JL): One of the biggest myths is that people on the autism spectrum cannot live independent lives. With quality education, employment, training and support – there are many who are able to live meaningful lives and contribute to society.

Tan Sze Wee (TSW): We often think that independence is being able to do everything on their own. However, I think that independence can also be interpreted as being able to do things that other people can but with the support that I need. I think the ability to know our own limits and to know when we need to enlist the help of someone is also a kind of independence. From that angle, one way to support persons with autism to lead independent lives is actually by providing support for them, in the form that they need.

What is the biggest challenge that people with autism face when they enter society?

Tan Sze Wee, Executive Director of Rainbow Centre

TSW: Many persons on the spectrum enter society at 18 years old after they graduate from special education (SPED) schools. In such SPED schools, they are generally in a sheltered environment, where people understand their behaviours and the very different ways in which they communicate. Upon entering the community, people in their communities may not understand why they behave in a certain way. That can be a great challenge for them, as this is mutual – they also do not know how to interpret the behaviours of others as well. I think that kind of social disconnection can be one of the greatest challenges.

JL: We still face a lack of opportunities for individuals on the spectrum to get continuous access to lifelong learning. That’s highlighted in the Autism Enabling Masterplan, where there is a significant lack of post-18 support for individuals on the spectrum.

JL: In the age of rapid technological development, we also see more jobs becoming obsolete, so there’s a continual need to support adults on the spectrum to upskill so they can gain employment. To do that we need to continue working with industry partners, veterans in their industry to equip adults on the spectrum with skills. Of course, this process takes time.

JL: Most employers are relatively kind, but sometimes they lack knowledge on how to include people on the spectrum into their workplace. Another challenge could be that while the top management are very supportive, but down the line there may be resistance from some of the coworkers and managers. This may simply be because they do not understand autism enough, or they fear the unknown.

How do we support people on the spectrum to access employment opportunities and lead meaningful lives? 

With training and support, people with autism can work
Credit: Autism Resource Centre

JL: The Autism Resource Centre intervenes to bring in partners from the employers to the individuals on the spectrum. 

Firstly, we start by training individuals on the spectrum to prepare them for work. At the same time, we prepare the employers to make sure there’s a suitable match between job and employee, and to ensure that the work environment and coworkers are supportive. With all these factors, employers can see that having a disability does not mean they are unable to work. Additionally, employers learn that people on the spectrum can have the potential to become a very valuable part of the team. We even see employers including people on the spectrum into their families’ Christmas celebrations!

We also see that this is beyond individual kindness, but it is a model that we can replicate and scale up to help more people on the spectrum gain meaningful and independent employment. This shows that we need to continue to build up the systems and support services for people on the spectrum to gain employment, on top of working with corporate partnerships and support. 

We shouldn’t focus on what they cannot do, but what they can do, and what sorts of practical support employers can put in place.

Jacelyn Lim, Executive Director of Autism Resource Centre

TSW: One way is to increase the opportunities for interaction between persons on the autism spectrum and neurotypicals. I think awareness really helps, but current awareness efforts might be limited to persons with autism who are in mainstream schools, or those who are able to participate in many of their communities’ activities. Interactions with students with autism who attend special education schools are also very relevant. We can increase these kinds of opportunities for individuals on the spectrum to interact with their peers, and we need to start from young, to be more understanding and aware of the different ways that different people can communicate.

What’s your advice to people who are interested in making an impact in the disability sector, or helping out people on the spectrum? 

Youths and caregivers from Young Adult Activities! at a sports carnival organised by NTU-CurL volunteers.
Credit: Rainbow Centre Singapore

JL: It’s important to focus on their abilities. We shouldn’t focus on what they cannot do, but what they can do, and what sorts of practical support employers can put in place. I think that’s where employers can work with social service agencies like Autism Resource Center and other partners. Employers need to first make sure that the workplace has the right practices in place tailored to each individual, for example making instructions and workflow clear for the individual. Sometimes, special accommodations may be required, so employers can also work with us to create the right culture and environment that is accepting of differences. This will go a long way to help integrate someone on the spectrum. 

TSW: You can actually start by befriending first. At Rainbow Centre, we have a Good Life Befriender program where you have the opportunity to build lifelong friendships with a person around your age and to be able to know a person beyond just helping them out with their tasks, and who the person is behind their disability. I think this is a great way to really think about whether this is a possible career option or even just to gain a friend.

In the spirit of Autism Awareness Month, what’s one thing we can celebrate? 

Individual on the spectrum at work
Credit: Autism Resource Centre

TSW: The first thing that comes to mind are the caregivers, with the resilience and strength that they display. At the end of the day, they are the greatest support and I’m always touched seeing how they care and love their children unconditionally.

JL: I think with greater awareness over the past few years, I’m grateful that there have been more opportunities to highlight their abilities and talents. There have been more instances of the spotlight being placed on disabled persons, and we can increasingly see their differences rather than their “deficits”.

Another thing is seeing increasing opportunities for persons on the spectrum to get their voices heard. Not just in advocacy, but in the implementation of social services as well. For example, the Autism Resource Centre is starting to implement a co-sharing model. In talks to raise awareness about Autism, besides listening to professionals working in the autism space, such as psychologists, therapists or consultants, we also have persons on the spectrum share their experiences living with autism as someone on the spectrum.  With regards to the developing Autism Enabling Masterplan, we have also gotten a lot of feedback from the community, especially people on the spectrum to inform us about their unaddressed needs.