Work, in whatever form it takes, can provide autistic adults with dignified and meaningful engagement. Pre-vocational and vocational training opportunities are beneficial to all. Even so, patience, persistence and a paradigm shift are key when it comes to training persons on the more moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum.
St. Andrew’s Autism Centre’s (SAAC) goal has always been to encourage the public to look beyond the label, and in the process, create opportunities for its adult clients with higher support needs to develop their interests and grow their strengths. And one such opportunity came in the form of the horticultural programme by its Day Activity Centre (Siglap).
A Secret Garden
“Rather than just containing the adult clients in a room with table-top activities, we decided to do something different by creating an outdoor programme to engage our clients meaningfully,” said Mike Koh, Head of Day Activity Centre (Siglap), managed by St. Andrew’s Adult Autism Services (SAAAS).
In 2011, the DAC initiated a pilot horticulture project that involved six adult clients. The training programme consisted of many baby steps. It started with basic gardening skills adapted for autism, beginning first with watering and weeding, and followed by more complex skills such as soil mixing, preparation of seedlings, transplanting, and soil aeration.
Pre-vocational skills training aside, there were other benefits that the clients gained, from acquiring proper work habits, discipline and awareness of responsibility and safety – all of which are important life skills.
“When adult clients are equipped with these skills, they become more independent, focused, confident and happier,” highlighted Mike. “All of which can be life-changing for them and their families.”
In late 2015, the pilot evolved into a ground-breaking community engagement programme. Known as the DAC Urban Farm initiative, this programme is gaining momentum and recognition not just among the Centre but within the neighbourhood as well.
As of date, more than 30 clients are being engaged and trained at various levels of skill competency. Also, since its humble beginnings, the clients and their coaches have learnt to grow and manage a greater variety of plants, including local edible plants such as pandan and herbs such as Thai basil and rosemary. What’s more, is that the harvested crops are making their way to homes and the community!
Bundles of Autism Awareness
Harvested vegetables are now packed under the newly created Colours GREEN brand under the SAAC’s Colours Project and are distributed through RedDot Orchard – an online greengrocer, and to the community at Villa Marina condominium. The vegetables are also occasionally sold at fairs and farmers markets.
“The distribution of harvested vegetables provides for structured planning of the full cycle of seeding, planting and harvest, an important part of the learning process for adults with autism,” said Mike. “The hands-on experience helps them to visualise, understand and appreciate their efforts and their impact.”
From Farm to Table
Available by pre-order only, this is particularly appealing to customers who want to know where their vegetables are coming from. Clients are also especially proud being able to personally deliver the produce they had a part in planting and harvesting.
To Terence Tan, the young entrepreneur who started RedDot Orchard, giving back to the community means forging ties with local community partners and supporting social causes. On delivery days, clients would help arrange the vegetables into the fridges.
“My customers are happy with the produce so far. They are even more delighted when they learnt that the vegetables are grown by individuals with autism,” said Terence. “Conversation starts, and people start understanding more about autism and that’s when awareness is raised.”
“Autism is something that is not truly understood by many in society. What the society understands of the community is usually from the media which may not be an accurate depiction,” continued Terence. “Many of the individuals are all unique in their own ways. Many of them struggle to fit into society but with the right guidance and opportunities, these individuals can develop into great individuals. I’m proud to be able to support this cause and raise awareness of autism.”
Closer to the Centre, Ms Rosa Quitadamo, a Villa Marina resident reached out in support of the DAC Urban Farm initiative.
Rosa kick-started her community engagement initiative to involve SAAC’s adult clients in her ‘veggie programme’. She would have several pre-arranged households receive a basket of freshly harvested, pesticide-free vegetables directly from the hands of the SAAC ‘gardeners.
“We were lucky enough to try both soil-grown and hydroponic vegetables and feedback has been fantastic on both. How many people in highly urbanised Singapore can say that they have tasted vegetables that were harvested a mere two hours earlier?” said Rosa, who loves every part of the collaboration with SAAC.
“One of the most satisfying parts of the programme is to see these young adults so excited at every visit and also challenged in a good way,” continued Rosa. “Very often people are too busy going about their life with work, children and daily challenges that they are not that aware of who their neighbours are. Getting to know your neighbours not only provides great learning opportunities but also facilitates friendships and sometimes meaningful collaborations.”
More recently, stall owners at the 936 Food Village in Siglap whom coaches and clients have befriended through their regular community outings, have also expressed their support for the clients and the harvests from the Urban Farm.
Nurturing a Garden of Hope
Horticulture has provided the SAAC with the platform from which skills are taught and slowly acquired. Even as the clients learn to nurture new seedlings into plants, they are being nurtured into simple gardeners and tenders of our growing garden of hope.