About half of young adults with autism have never held a job for more than a year and more than 66 per cent of employees have little or no knowledge of the syndrome, a recent study by Hong Kong’s largest autism support group has found.

Heep Hong Society, a rehabilitative service group set up in 1963, called on the government to normalise employment support services for youngsters with autism and other special needs, ahead of World Autism Awareness Day on Monday.

Incentives for employers and more educationwere also needed to reduce discriminationagainst jobseekers with special needs, the society said.

“The government, as the largest employer in Hong Kong, should lead the way by providing more internship posts for young people with special needs,” said Godwin Cheung Chi-sing, regional manager of Heep Hong.

“There should also be more support for employers, such as more stable social service projects with normalised funding from the government,” he added.

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In her maiden policy addressin 2017, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced a 30-month pilot scheme set up in 2016 to support autism patients with an IQ score above 70. The government also promised to double its internship places from 50 to 100 for students with disabilities.

With a grant of more than HK$10 million (US$1.27 million) from the pilot scheme, the Star Project operated by Heep Hong Society served 160 autistic clients from April 2016 to this January – but will have to help 140 more by September to meet the service agreement target.

Existing assistance for career planning, vocational training and job seeking for autism people was far from sufficient, according to Cheung.

According to a report released by the Census and Statistics Department in 2014, which presented findings of a citywide survey on people with disabilities and chronic diseases, there were 10,200 people diagnosed with autism. Among the 4,300 autistic adults aged below 64, only 32.6 per cent – or 1,400 individuals – were employed.

Cheung believed the actual number of autistic people was much higher. In his estimation, Hong Kong had about 27,000 people aged between 15 and 35 with the syndrome, according to the rate of one in every 68 individuals recognised by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

In its most recent survey from last November to the end of February, the Heep Hong Society polled 45 autistic service users with an average age of 26, 45 family members and 27 employers.

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Close to 49 per cent of the autistic youth surveyed reported that the most long-lived job they had ever hadlasted for less than one year, among which more than half lost their jobs within three months.

Among the 35 youngsters who were employed at the time of survey, most were working as clerks, catering and logistics staff.

Though all of them had secondary or above education, and more than 70 per cent received vocational training, their median monthly income was HK$6,700 (US$874) – about half the median salary for general employees aged between 20 and 29 in 2016.

The young employees polled reported that communication with colleagues and supervisors and expressing themselves were the two greatest challenges in their work, followed by lack of capability and a mismatch between duty and strength.

As for the employers, though close to 78 per cent reported having autistic employees, more than 66 per cent admitted they had little or no knowledge of the syndrome or ways to cope with it.

More than 20 per cent of employers said autistic employees lacked communication skills, were stubborn or could notexplain themselves clearly. Meanwhile, obedience, professional ethics and an attention to detail were seen as their strengths by most employers.

Yip Chi-hin, 24, was diagnosed with autism and became a client of Heep Hong before the age of six. In mid-2016, Yip quit his first job as a cleaner in a fast-food restaurant after working only one month after his graduation from the Institute of Vocational Education.

“My supervisor and I had no communication. He never approached me and asked about me except for telling me what to do on the day,” Yip said.

With an actual interest in preparing food, Yip disliked the job of cleaning and was often absent from work without notifying his supervisor.

In September 2016, Yip became an intern at the salad bar of the Shangri-La Hotel with the help of the society. There he found colleagues who would teach and talk to him proactively, and a duty he was interested to learn more about. Yip has been working in the hotel for 15 months and had his part-time hours increased from half a day to two days per week.

Cheung Kit-ngan, Shangri-La’s deputy human resources director said the hotel already employed three employees with special needs, including Yip, and aimed to hire 10 more.

“We need support on staff education so that all employees have a better knowledge of autism and other special needs, as well as assistance from professional organisations,” Cheung said.

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More than 61 per cent of the employers surveyed by Heep Hong said subsidies from the government would be a better incentive for them to hire people with special needs. And more than 40 per cent said education for other employees and adaptation of office facilities would be needed to support special employees.

Godwin Cheung of Heep Hong said current support for employees and jobseekers with special needs was often unstable because both the funding for social services and subsidies for employers were mostly project-based and time-limited.

Under the Work Orientation and Placement Scheme of the Labour Department, one eligible employer could get an allowance of up to HK$35,000 in total for hiring one disabled employee. The maximum payment period was eight months.

“With more normalised funding and service provision, hopefully the society can be more and more open to people with autism and other special needs,” he said.

Yip Chi-hin’s mother said regular follow-up from social workers and assistance from employers meant a lot for their family.

“All these young people need is just an opportunity. I hope [the government and the society] can give them that,” Yip said.

Heep Hong Society rolled out a three-year project on March 1 with a grant from the Jockey Club to serve 240 adults under 35-year-old with autism and other special needs to plan their careers and find suitable jobs.

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