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Offers pour in to save autism coffee shop

By ZHOU WENTING | China Daily | Updated: 2018-05-16 07:30
Autistic teens train to prepare and serve coffee in Shanghai. The goal is to help the youths enter the workforce. LIU RUI/FOR CHINA DAILY

A Shanghai nonprofit that ran a training coffee shop teaching autistic youths how to interact with others said it received more than 500 offers from venues willing to accommodate the project after it closed down this month.

The nonprofit, Shanghai Angels Salon, which began about a decade ago, helps young people with autism and their families through support programs, music therapy and other activities.

On April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, the group opened the coffee shop training program, called A-Coffee, in a small first-floor unit of a commercial property in downtown Jing'an Park that was staffed by eight autistic teens, ages 15 to 18.

Volunteers would act as customers, while the "employees" would take orders, make coffee and handle any problems, which were manufactured to test the teens' interaction skills.

"We created a small environment for them to communicate with different people and learn to solve problems, so that they could one day walk alone into real society," said Cao Xiaoxia, the head of Shanghai Angels Salon. "Some were showing the potential to work independently after one to two years of practice."

"Some of them thought it was a real job and they were really excited about it," said Zhang, whose 18-year-old son took part in the project. She asked not to be fully identified to protect her family's privacy.

Zhang said her son became interested in learning how to make coffee and even practiced at home after she bought him a coffee machine.

"I hoped the coffee shop would be a place to create miracles for my child," she said. "He could learn normal social communication and eventually be integrated into society and earn a living by himself."

However, on May 6, a notice appeared on the door of the coffee shop saying it had closed due to a rent issue. According to Shanghai Morning Post, the space had been provided to the group for free, but the landlord believed it was only a short-term project and ended the lease.

After news broke of the closure, Cao said her team was bombarded with phone calls from people offering to host the project. These included restaurants, coffee shops and public facilities, such as a cultural center in Jing'an district.

On Monday, an insider at Shanghai Angels Salon said the group had settled on a new location but did not want to reveal it as the contract still needed to be signed.

She said she also hoped the site would be in the city's business district so the autistic youths will have more opportunities to make contact with young workers, while more white-collar workers might be attracted to volunteer in the program.

China has more than 10 million children and teens with autism and most rely on family, according to Xu Xiu, a leading expert in autism at the Children's Hospital of Fudan University.

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