LemmeLearn: Enhancing Independence and Inclusivity for Autistic Individuals

By Iylia De Silva

June 2024 FEATURE
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The team behind the LemmeLearn enterprise.

AUTISM IS A neurological condition characterised by differences in brain development, affecting social interaction, communication skills and behaviour. Being a spectrum disorder, the symptoms and levels of impairment vary widely among individuals.

Experts can detect autism in children who are as young as 18 months old by observing specific behaviours such as preference for solitary play, a strong interest in specific toys, not responding to their names and avoiding eye contact. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) child development milestones, a lack of babbling by the time a child is 12 months old could be a concern. Early intervention is crucial; while there is no cure, professional help can alleviate symptoms and improve the quality of life.

Depending on whether children exhibit symptoms of verbal, non-verbal or limited speech, parents may choose to integrate various approaches in order to help, including Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), Individualised Education Programmes (IEP), speech therapy and occupational therapy.

Individuals with autism have varying sensory sensitivities, from hyposensitivity where they may underreact to their surroundings and risk danger, to hypersensitivity where stimuli are intensified. For example, someone who is hyposensitive might move through a crowd without noticing contact, while a hypersensitive individual might feel overwhelmed by sensations like body odour, lights, voices and footsteps in the same environment.

Autism patients might also struggle to read facial expressions and understand social cues, making it challenging to grasp others’ emotions. Repetitive behaviours help them regulate their emotions and find comfort, akin to how we calm ourselves through tapping or finger rubbing when we are feeling nervous.

Additionally, misconceptions that they are violent or aggressive stem from their difficulties in understanding appropriate responses. Some may express themselves through scripting, like repeating lines from cartoons they relate to, while others may show anxiety through body language or tantrums. At this point, it is important to ask them to clarify their emotions or any incidents causing them distress.

The portrayal of the main character as a brilliant attorney with autism in the popular K-drama, Extraordinary Attorney Woo, perpetuates the myth that individuals with autism possess special talents. In reality, while individuals with autism often do have very specific obsessions and interests which help in their understanding of an ever-changing and unpredictable world, Savant Syndrome is extremely rare.

Interestingly, autism is more commonly diagnosed in males, as females often exhibit higher levels of adaptive functioning, masking their symptoms effectively. Some females develop coping mechanisms by mimicking their peers to conceal social interaction difficulties. Consequently, females may be underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed, often discovering their condition later in life.

DL playing “Falling Monkeys”, which aids in developing attention and turn-taking skills.

About LemmeLearn

LemmeLearn is a social enterprise in Penang that focuses on vocational training and fostering independent living for individuals on the autism spectrum aged 18 and above. By prioritising hands-on experiences, the enterprise empowers students to develop skills necessary for self-expression and societal integration, while also aiming to educate the public about inclusivity.

Eileen, the founder of LemmeLearn, envisions transforming Pulau Tikus into an autism-friendly town. Within a 1km radius of the centre, there are amenities such as a police station, wet market, coffee shops, malls, a post office and a signing Starbucks. This strategic location can facilitate individuals with autism in living independently in the future.

The enterprise adopts DIR Floortime methods, which stands for Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based Floortime Approach. This method prioritises student-led activities aligned with their interests, focusing on building emotional and relational skills through engaging interactions.

LemmeLearn collaborates with partners to provide training sessions that help students adapt to the workspace as employees and understand the expectations of a real work setting. The centre enrolls an average of 15 students annually, and their graduates go on to gain employment or continue with their studies. Notably, a graduate is now our full time staff playing a key role in LemmeDrink Kombucha’s production where his keen attention to detail for precise measurements and ingredients greatly contributes to the production process.

Student requirements include general compliance with instructions and active participation in tasks and activities. Prospective students and their parents typically undergo an interview process, especially since the training involves activities such as vegetable cutting and acquiring cooking skills. As part of their training, students take turns selling Nasi Lemak at Bee Hooi café in Pulau Tikus every alternate weekday.

LemmeLearn students managing the Nasi Lemak stall at Bee Hooi café.

Interactions with individuals on the autism spectrum vary based on roles—trainers focus on teaching, friends seek deeper connections and the general public aims for inclusion. While it is essential not to treat individuals with autism differently, adapting communication through simpler language or visual aids can facilitate understanding and inclusivity.

LemmeLearn is committed to helping individuals on the autism spectrum discover their strengths and support their journey towards independence and employment. One key initiative is the annual Inclusion Camp, which brings together participants from colleges and universities.

If you wish for more information, a Mandarin podcast episode on the same topic can be found on Penang Institute’s website, or visit their website at www.lemmelearn.com.

Iylia De Silva

is a law graduate from the University of London. Balancing work and play, she savours every moment by indulging in her passion for food, languages, music and engaging with people from diverse cultures.