Quang Anh (right) helps customers at the supermarket. — VNA/VNS Photo Phương Mai

In a modest three-storey home on Mai Anh Tuấn Street in Hà Nội's Đống Đa District, the Việt Nam Autism Projects (VAPs) – the country's inaugural economic model for those with autism, is in operation.

Established by Nguyễn Đức Trung, this initiative has been maintained over the past seven years.

This unique establishment, endearingly named "a happy enterprise," boasts employees in its supermarket, restaurant, and bookstore who are all autistic.

While they might have challenges with communication, language, and social interactions, their professionalism and attentiveness consistently earn the admiration of customers.

It serves as a testament to their value and a means for them to integrate into the broader community.

Each person, each duty

Upon spotting a visitor, Quang Anh, 21, promptly opens the door, greets them with a warm bow and a handshake.

Capable of speaking well, Anh is responsible for working in the ground floor supermarket and greeting patrons.

"Each day at work, I'm surrounded by colleagues, friends, and teacher Trung. I feel cherished, looked after, and guided, allowing me to constantly improve. I've grown fond of my life and have come to comprehend many of life's complexities," Anh said.

Anh is autistic.

His education was halted as he struggled to mingle with schoolmates. However, in this setting, he thrives.

Lê Hưng is the head chef at the restaurant – another facet of this unique business.

Together with his aide Công Minh, he offers dishes prepared with great care and thought.

It would surprise many to discover that those piping hot, scrumptious pizzas and aesthetically presented salads are crafted by someone with autism.

Hưng personally handles four of the five steps to craft a perfect pizza.

Owing to their constrained linguistic and motor skills, the staff require additional time for movement and to accommodate customer requests.

In appreciation for this extended patience, the restaurant personnel ensure meticulous service, from slicing pizzas and setting up utensils to pouring water, all while wearing an ever-present smile.

In the bookstore section, patrons are met with enthusiastic recommendations from two charming employees, Xuân Tùng and Khôi Nguyên.

Tùng, 29, once led a reclusive life, often reluctant to engage with others.

After undergoing training, he emerged as a skilled worker. He assists fellow employees with billing tasks and has risen to the position of VAPs' deputy director.

Khôi Nguyên, the youngest, is chatty and lively.

He offers advice to everyone on book selections and educational resources.

Nguyên often shares innocent remarks that invariably draw chuckles from everyone around due to his endearing nature.

Each day, his mother accompanies him to work.

Trung, executive director of VAPs, said the initiative encompasses three primary ventures: a supermarket, a restaurant, and a bookstore.

Alongside his unique team, Trung sees each individual as a captivating story brimming with fascinating tales.

Aspiration to replicate VAPs

While Trung, the director of the project, doesn't directly engage in customer service, he is actively involved in overseeing and assisting his exceptional staff.

Initially an economist with many years of experience in understanding autism, Trung has been driven by a vision to integrate autistic individuals into society, recognising their worth through their work capabilities.

Over the years, "teacher" Trung has proactively sought out families with autistic children, gaining profound insights into their lives.

Through this, he's intimately familiar with the habits, likes, strengths, shortcomings, and personalities of each of his employees.

Everyone joining this business initiative receives direct training from Trung until they become adept at their roles.

Depending on their unique abilities, he directs them towards suitable tasks, from baking and coffee making to using English, IT skills, and customer interactions.

Reflecting on his team, Trung said: "With time, I've come to see that these employees are my treasured partners, instrumental in shaping the project.”

"Even though they have distinct personalities, they exude an innate purity and charm. They fulfil their roles flawlessly," added Trung.

Contrary to many globally recognised vocational models, Trung's vision for VAPs is to establish a profitable venture, ensuring lasting employment opportunities for autistic individuals.

They earn their keep, creating value and establishing connections within the community.

Trung shared: "Once, while delivering coffee to a company, the director questioned our intent. I thought he wrongly assumed we were seeking donations. Though slightly disheartened, I clarified that our earnings come solely from our services."

VAPs operates without relying on charitable contributions.

Employee wages are derived from the business's earnings and are disbursed daily based on sales.

Trung envisions replicating similar models to VAPs nationwide, understanding the complexities involved, particularly in training.

"In any venture, regular training and enhancement of employee skills are imperative. Customers visit and pay, and the autistic workforce thrives; this, I believe, is the value of labour," Trung concluded. — VNS