Although the act of taking orders and serving nasi lemak may seem simple enough to everyday folk, for individuals on the Autism spectrum this is a struggle and something that they must learn. To equip adults with Autism for the work field, the inclusive vocational training centre LemmeLearn has set up a nasi lemak stall right in the heart of bustling Pulau Tikus, Penang.

Founded by Eileen Soon, a special educator, LemmeLearn is an inclusive vocational training centre that equips and empowers adults with autism to live meaningful, independent lives within the community.

Their hope is to transform the 1km radius around their centre in Pulau Tikus to be an ‘Autism Friendly Township’ where adults with autism can walk safely, work effectively’ and live securely with local community members recognising them and protecting them.

With choices of curry chicken, belacan chicken, or fried fish with add-on options of fried coconut sambal ladies’ fingers and acar awak, each plate has been carefully prepared and is a testament to the sheer hard work of autistic adults. While the stall was soft launched on 21 February this year, nasi lemak from the centre has been a hit with customers since 2020.

Speaking to Rojak Daily, Eileen said, “The idea was sparked during the pandemic when everyone was ordering food deliveries. Parents of our students had voiced that one day they would like for their child to manage a small business set up for them.

"We wanted to equip them with the skills needed to run a small start-up. This included carrying out stock checking, purchasing ingredients, making the product, taking customer orders, managing finances, selling the products, and cleaning up. We decided to start with F&B because it was something they had experience with and required a lower capital to start.”

Seeing that these hands-on experiences really impacted their growth, the centre created several other opportunities for the students such as collaborating with Les Grains Bakery to supply customers with premium breakfast boxes, LemmeDrink Kombucha which was hand-brewed in small batches, and iBite pet bonding treats which are handmade bonding treats for dogs and cats.

The Process

Compared to conventional hawker stalls, the LemmeEat Nasi Lemak stall has a much larger team with those ranging from 20 to 40 years old. Two groups of students are involved in the whole process including five students to prepare the sambal and acar from scratch and six students to act as the sales team.

Eileen shared, “We pay the students a salary from the profits based on how many days they work, the level of independence and the complexity of their task. As it is a much larger team, the profits are also much more divided.”

Understanding the Perspective of People on the Spectrum

Dipa Yuvabalan, an Inclusive Vocational Trainer at the centre shared why it is difficult for people with special needs to operate such a stall in order for readers to gain an understanding from their perspective.

She said, “Operating a stall requires a lot of skills that may not be favourable for individuals on the spectrum, especially areas such as flexibility and social communication that affect those with Autism. Despite this, our students are constantly pushing themselves out of their comfort zone to improve.”

Deficits in social communication and social interaction are one of the symptoms of Autism, which directly clash with the skills required to be a stall operator because they will be required to communicate with customers on a day-in-and-out basis.

Dipa continued, “It is one area that they are constantly improving on and it can become difficult at times because there are many areas in social aspects and there are no fixed answers as they meet different kinds of customers every day. Thankfully, some of the customers are pretty patient with our students.”

Other social aspects that may be challenging for them include:

  1. Understanding the social cues of the customers such as when are they in a rush or getting impatient. There are changes that they then need to implement based on social cues.

  1. Communicating and listening also requires extra effort. They need to listen to and take down orders from customers. Sometimes when there is a special request, it can become confusing for them as it's different from the standard order that they are familiar with. As they are working as a team, they also need to communicate with their teammates.

Dipa elaborated, “We learned from our students that what may seem to be common sense to us is actually something that they have to put in the effort to learn.”

A Stepping Stone

This stall acts as a great stepping stone to equip the adults for the work field. Eileen said, “The stall helps them experience the pressures and expectations of the working world while allowing us trainers to guide them through.

"We are able to equip them not only in the skills aspect, but also help them manage their emotions, learn to work, communicate together as a team, and stretch their work stamina. When they encounter issues, we are able to coach them through problem-solving strategies which enable them to handle similar issues in the future.”

Eileen was happy to report, “We have experienced a lot of success with this form of training as five of our LemmeLearn students who went through this sale have successfully found employment in companies within the community.” Business-wise, some days the nasi lemak is sold out while some days they only manage to sell two-thirds of the prepared packets.

Make sure to stop by the stall to grab your lunch if you’re in Penang and support them. Visit their website or follow LemmeLearn on Facebook.

Address: Bee Hooi Coffee Shop, 415, Jalan Burma, Pulau Tikus, 10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang

Opening Hours: 11.30 am – 1.00pm, Tuesdays to Thursdays

(Closed on alternate Tuesdays)

Dine-in or takeaway available. No preorders required.