Currently, the common solutions for autism employment are job coaches supporting full-time mainstream jobs as well as factory work in sheltered workshops and Day Activity Centres.
There is a need to provide a sustainable alternative that:
- Is able to provide for the survival of autistic people into the foreseeable future despite the massive automation of most jobs
- Provides a slow-paced, low sensory stimulation and predictable work environment
- Does not depend on highly paid professionals to run
- Can also work for autistic people with higher support needs
Farming fits the bill. Autistic adults can generate their food supply and thereby become self-sustaining. Do scroll down to watch YouTube videos of examples of how other people have created similar projects.
We need to consider a few points before starting this project:
1) Farming requires a large quantity of cheap land. Mainland Singapore is unsuitable due to exorbitant land/rental costs. Outlying islands or third-world countries are more suitable. In addition, the Singapore government usually provides land on short leases, which is highly disruptive for autistic adults when it is time to move. The land should be purchased as freehold to maintain complete control and stop rental inflation.
2) Labour is also a significant cost. Instead of highly paid professionals, we can engage other people in need of assistance, such as homeless elderly and disabled people without intellectual disabilities as community partners. They live rent-free and get meals from the farm but must provide supervision, support and guidance. The labour costs will not be sustainable otherwise.
3) A professionally-run non-profit is necessary to ensure proper supervision over how the community is run and ensure continuity. Parents who choose to DIY may run into complications.
4) It is politically untenable for local politicians to admit that they cannot provide adequate disability support and that the cost of living in Singapore is excessively high. It is also politically untenable for the governments of third-world countries to be seen as a “dumping ground” for disabled people. Likewise, the leaders of mainstream autism organisations will not be seen in a good light if they admit their inadequacies.
Hence this idea will not be mentioned by the politicians, autism organisations and mainstream media. Parents must form their non-profit to pursue this idea without external support.
5) Parents must cough up money upfront to make it happen. That amount needs to be proportionate to the expected lifespan of the child multiplied by their support needs.
The autism non-profit will use the upfront payment to invest in capital costs like buying land and investments/annuities that generate long-term cash flow. A pay-as-you-use subscription model will cause issues when parents fail to pay (e.g. when they pass on).
If the child passes on earlier than expected, the payment will not be refundable or else it will create cashflow issues. Parents concerned about losing out can choose to take out an insurance policy on their child’s life.
Idea: Create eco-tourism farming communities on Pulau Ubin Island
Eco-tourism farming communities be established on Pulau Ubin where tourists and students can tend to organic crops using traditional farming methods and learn more about local wildlife while living in attap houses.
Firstly, the farms can employ elderly folk as supervisors while autistics work the farms under their guidance – the slow pace of life and the quiet sensory environment can produce a healing and rejuvenating effect.
Secondly, the farms can host cash-strapped nonprofits and social enterprises that need large areas of low-cost land to operate – these organisations can run the farms in lieu of paying rent.
Thirdly, this community can provide a retirement option for cash-strapped healthy elderly who may otherwise need long-term government assistance. They can take up paid roles to supervise and guide autistic farmworkers while staying permanently in the community.
Lastly, the farms may be able to pay for themselves by selling surplus produce. Perhaps the selective use of technology such as exposing the plants to LED lights at night can increase yield significantly while keeping the crops organic.
These farms can be based on Camphill communities [see below for videos], a sustainable model of inclusion in existence since 1939.
Idea: Implement nation-wide urban farming
We can convert HDB rooftops and river canal surfaces into miniature farms run by social enterprises such as Grace Mission Hydroponics and Edible Garden City. A predictable, low-stress environment with limited sensory exposure and well-defined tasks is ideal for many autistics.
Inclusive farming, which integrates disabled as well as socially disadvantaged people (e.g. young offenders) in a social community, also improves the physical (e.g. better sleep), emotional (e.g. higher self-esteem) and social well-being (e.g. greater personal responsibility) of farmers.
In addition, we can convert the green spaces in our neighbourhood to Food Forests growing fruit trees and vegetables. Unfortunately, open spaces are vulnerable to theft. One approach is to designate community farms as critical national infrastructure monitored by security cameras and have every theft investigated diligently. Another approach is to plant fruit trees requiring much time and effort to harvest while passing new laws that force thieves to pay heavy fines as compensation to farmers.
Perhaps a more enlightened approach is to saturate green spaces with hardy and low-maintenance crops. Nearby schools, old folks’ homes, day activity centres, places of worship and social service agencies can adopt plots of land. Those who harvest the crops are morally obliged to do volunteer community work in exchange.
Researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield have estimated that 10% of a city’s urban green spaces can supply 15% of the local population with sufficient fruits and vegetables. If this can be translated to Singapore, we might even be exporting greens one day!
References: Camphill Communities