“Aunty Pamela!” She often greets me with a grin, calling out to me even from a distance. My neighbour’s daughter has mild autism and is enrolled in a mainstream school. I often think she is more sociable than my twin boys.

One of my son’s classmates has autism too. R comes over to play with my twin boys because he only has a sister at home and they don’t play well together. I suspect R appreciates getting a 2-for-1 deal when he comes over!

And then, there is a little boy who lives in my block whom I suspect has autism. Before he enters the lift, his parents put on headphones for him to calm him down. He rides the lift, grunting, groaning and shouting, which scares the neighbours “trapped” in the lift with him. But the sad part is that his parents often look apologetic.

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Autism is characterised – in varying degrees – by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviours. Because it falls on a continuum, it’s known scientifically as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Studies have shown that autism is about four times more common among boys than girls.

While I have interacted with children with autism, I have not – for some bizarre reason – entertained the thought that these children will someday grow up to be adults.

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Hosting The Living Room on 938LIVE (2008-2011)

Around 2009, when I did a radio interview with a father who was coping with a grown-up son with severe autism, my eyes were opened to a reality that broke my heart.

The father told me that they had only one child because his son’s condition was so severe that they had to take care of him 24/7 – there was no room for another dependent. In fact, his wife left her full-time job and had been taking care of him for almost two decades. The couple had not gone on a single vacation.

“People always tell us God only gives you what you can handle,” he said, his voice breaking. “That is so easy to say.”

He tells me that the curious thing about autistic children is that they often look normal. In fact, many of them are very good-looking. As such, people around them often do not know that they have a disorder. But as they grow up into teenagers and adults, their behaviours often frighten people because what they see is not what they expect.

Teenager with Autism (Photo: www.jsonline.com)

Teenager with Autism (Photo: http://www.jsonline.com)

I could feel the father’s pain when he recounted how his teenage son was scorned because he could not control his sexual urges in public. Nobody could understand that this good-looking teenager had a disorder. They thought he was poorly disciplined and they blamed the parents.

“It was easier when he was a child,” the father told me. “People were more forgiving.”

What he said next hit me like a brick wall.

“What will happen to my son when we die?” he asked. “Who will take care of him?”

I did not have an answer.

This very intense interview never left me all these years. So when I was invited for an event recently that celebrated a partnership between a business and the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) in Singapore, I knew it was something to celebrate!

When Starbucks first came to Singapore 17 years ago, it was cool to hang out there because the concept was novel and the espresso-based coffees and Frappuccinos were hip alternatives to our kopitiam coffee and 3-in-1s. The ambience was also trendy with the hiss of espresso machines, the shouting of baristas over the counter and piped-in jazz.

Coffee Masters at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House

Coffee Masters at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House

But over the years, with the arrival of Melbourne-styled artisan cafés in Singapore, Starbucks became the MacDonald’s of coffee. It was mass, commercial, and the coffee couldn’t match up to some. And hanging out at Starbucks started to become a little less cool.

As a coffee lover, I do agree they don’t serve the best coffee. Personally, I like La Ristrettos and Papa Palheta better. But I admit I have a soft spot for Starbucks because their heart is in the right place.

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This soft spot started in 2003 when I read the book Pour Your Heart Into It by Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks. I read it as a case study on leadership and read it again some years later because that book inspired me so much.

When you know the heart of a leader – what he stands for – you know where his company comes from when they do what they do. And through the years, I’ve seen Starbucks keep to these principles even though they have been criticized for many things.

Pour your heart into it

So when I was invited to the opening of Starbucks Singapore’s 100th store on 14 February 2014, I was thrilled; especially hearing that this will be Asia’s first Give Back Store.

To me, every Starbucks store is a Give Back Store – I know they have an annual event around Christmas where proceeds go to the Salvation Army, they promote fair-trade, recycle coffee grounds as fertilisers, and support local musicians by selling their CDs in stores and giving them a platform to perform.

So how is this 100th store different?

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In a cosy round-table discussion with Jeff Hansberry (President, Starbucks China & Southeast Asia) and Denise Phua (President, Autism Resource Centre), I learnt that Starbucks Singapore has been partnering the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) for the past 10 years. They helped set up a café training facility at Pathlight School and have been training the students there for a decade. They’ve also accepted students from Pathlight for part-time work attachments.

With Denise Phua (ARC) and Jeff Hansberry (Starbucks)

With Denise Phua (ARC) and Jeff Hansberry (Starbucks)

But this 100th store takes the partnership a step further.

As a Give Back Store, Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House hires youths with autism as full-time staff. This means they don’t just have a job, they have a career path with Starbucks. And at least 25 per cent of the full-time staff at this store will be from ARC.

Youths with Autism as full-time Starbucks staff

Youths with Autism as full-time Starbucks staff

What’s more, the artistic talent of kids with autism is celebrated here. On a feature wall in this pretty nautical-themed store, drawings by students from Pathlight School are proudly showcased. Such amazing attention to detail! I could not have drawn these in a thousand years!

Artwork by students of Pathlight School

Artwork by students of Pathlight School

One of the students, 17-year-old Glenn Phua, even had his artwork featured on a Starbucks tumbler. This special tumbler is sold exclusively at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House, and $5 from the sale of each tumbler goes back to funding the work of ARC. I’m told this collaboration is expected to strengthen in the coming years.

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Any business that gives back to the community and promotes inclusiveness is a business I’m inclined to support. In a world where there is so much bad news, good news should be celebrated and shared, not gunned down. We do that far too often and way too quickly!

So what if they don’t serve the best coffee? There is more to life than good coffee!

And coming from a die-hard coffee lover, you better believe it.

Marcus, who has autistism, makes me a Frap!

Marcus, who has autistism, makes me a Java Chip Frap!

My hope is that all businesses that have a heart for people with special needs not forget the teenagers and adults too. Give them opportunities. Be the support network their parents need. Include them. Because for most severe cases, it’s often when these children grow up – and their parents grow older – that coping becomes harder. We do live in a society that is unforgiving and slow to understand.

And as a parent, I can identity with the fears of these parents. If I had a child with special needs, how would I feel if I knew I wouldn’t be around for much longer and would soon leave him behind, alone? What sort of world would I want to create so that I can leave knowing he is taken care of?

Let that be the space from where our daily choices spring.

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