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    Can This Café Help People With Autism Find Acceptance in China?

    La Fonte cafés in Shanghai employ members of staff who are autistic and might otherwise find it hard to get a job.
    Mar 21, 2024#welfare#health

    Yuan Wenjie, 33, walks into La Fonte café in Shanghai four times a week, his head down. He may be a bit introverted, but when the subject of coffee-making comes up, the barista becomes animated.

    “I can identify the types of coffee beans and make pour-overs,” he says with confidence and pride. “Making a cup of coffee is a long process. There are many details to take care of, including serving and clearing tables.”

    Yuan, along with his twin brother who works in another La Fonte outlet, was diagnosed with autism when he was four. At the time, the mental disorder was little known in China, leaving Yuan’s parents to fend for themselves in their sons’ early upbringing.

    At the time, it was common for families to keep their autistic relatives indoors and out of public view, but Yuan’s parents worried about the long-term impact of this confinement on their kids.

    “Staying indoors for a long time is bad for autistic people,” says Yuan Jianyong, Yuan’s father. “The longer the confinement, the worse the condition can become. So his mother took the twins to all kinds of activities just to help them integrate into the society.”

    Autism spectrum disorder affects more than 10 million people in China, according to a research report published by six groups, including the Beijing Association for Rehabilitation of Autistic Children and the China Rehabilitation Research Center.

    While psychologists and research findings suggest that social integration is an essential part of the rehabilitation process, the employment rate for adults with autism was less than 10% as of 2016.

    Workplaces like La Fonte that provide job opportunities for people with autism are rare. The exceptions generally include noodle restaurants, cafés, and factories.

    Yuan’s twin brother previously worked at a supermarket in Shanghai’s Xuhui District for seven years, moving boxes and checking product expiration dates. The store closed after the coronavirus pandemic.

    “It’s lucky for him that he was also able to get a job with La Fonte,” says Yuan’s father, adding that the size of his salary is immaterial. “At the café, my sons get to connect with the real world.”

    Yuan is now one of 20 autistic staff working in La Fonte’s five branches. The chain is part of the Starry Desert project, a nonprofit group that helps autistic people integrate into society. Since its founding in 2022, the café has provided annual barista training to dozens of people.

    “A job offers the chance for both autistic people and society to intermingle,” says Zhang Jie, manager of the Starry Desert project.

    She adds that La Fonte café has set an example for other businesses to provide a more tolerant environment for people with autism.

    The Yuan twins know what an intolerant environment is like. They were bullied at public school because they were different, their parents say, with even some teachers discriminating against them.

    The boys’ mother spent hours tutoring the twins every day. She recalled how hard it was to cope when the boys couldn’t grasp what was in textbooks. “I slapped them sometimes in sheer frustration,” she says, adding that she later recognized her mistake and stopped. “I realized that they couldn’t help it. It wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t understand.”

    Awareness of and tolerance for autism remain low among the general public. Xu, a La Fonte employee who asked to be identified only by her surname, says she was nervous when the café first took on autistic staff.

    “I had never met anyone with autism before in my life,” Xu says. “Their behavior and way of speaking were so strange to me. But I got to know them, and the strangeness melted away.”

    Staff like Yuan generally aren’t behind the counter taking orders from the public, however.

    “They can easily get it wrong,” says another employee at the café. “Sometimes, when a customer is discussing which coffee to order, (the staff) might already be putting the order in as final.”

    But when it comes to making a cup of coffee, autistic baristas usually excel, according to La Fonte staff.

    “Autistic people are like astronauts,” says Huang Yue, La Fonte’s owner. “Astronauts have a fabulous inner world hidden behind their bulky suits and helmets. Like the autistic, it can be hard for them to translate that world to the public at large.”

    According to Huang, the café’s efforts to help people with autism have attracted interest beyond Shanghai. One woman from Beijing brought her autistic brother to the café for barista training last year. They returned to the capital after he passed the course with flying colors.

    “It’s really a pleasure to see how courses offered here can impact people from far away,” says Huang.

    Starry Desert’s Zhang says her team is receiving an increasing number of calls from families with autistic children around the nation, suggesting that support programs still aren’t very strong in some parts of China.

    According to a report released by the Special Education College of Beijing Union University, the number of rehabilitation centers for autistic people rose from 30 in 2008 to 2,238 in 2019.

    Some 60% of these programs, according to the report, were for children 8 years and younger. At the same time, there was a steep decline in the types and numbers of social benefits or services available to autistic people aged 17 to 40, especially in employment.

    Starry Desert now offers training in four career paths: baristas, baking, crafts, and art.

    “I don’t wish for much,” says Yuan Jianyong, the Yuan twins’ father. “I just want my boys to live as normal a life as possible. Too many people in China are still unaware of autism. I thank La Fonte for giving my sons the opportunity, but we need more policies and actions to help families like us.”

    (Header image: The La Fonte café in Shanghai, March 6, 2024. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)