Autistic teens 'over the moon' to be interns at bakery
Feng Xiao deftly kneaded a piece of dough, filled it with a sesame stuffing and molded it into the shape of a mooncake, almost as quickly as his master working beside.
The 20-year-old intern at a local bakery can make and cook mooncakes as skilfully as an experienced dim sum chef. However, he seldom talks or makes eye contact with colleagues or customers.
Feng was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old after his parents found he was unresponsive and also could hardly talk with others.
After receiving a more than six-month-long free training supported by a city temple, Feng and about 30 other autistic youths began working at a bakery in turns from this weekend as intern chefs.
"It kindles my hope that perhaps Feng can find a fixed job and work the same as ordinary people," said Wu Fang, his mother.
The non-profit training session was initiated by the Jade Buddha Temple's Shanghai Juequn Cultural & Educational Foundation in March 2021.
With the certificates issued by the Shanghai Modern Food Vocational Skills Training Center, the graduates are eligible to work for local dim sum companies or restaurants.
The vegetarian pastry factory of the temple, which produces popular vegetarian mooncakes and other seasonal snacks, also offers internships.
The products they make are marketed as the "Starry Dessert" brand. Some of the profits are donated to help autistic groups.
As a key internship base, the La Fonte cafe and bakery on the opposite of the temple on Anyuan Road in Putuo District has officially appointed some of the first batch of graduates, including Feng, to work about three days every week.
As the Mid-Autumn Festival is approaches, which falls on September 10 this year, the bakery is receiving an increasing number of customers for the freshly baked seasonal mooncakes.
Feng worked efficiently with two senior chefs, while his colleague Liu Yi, another autistic teen, served customers.
"Feng is quite sensitive to numbers and has a strong learning and operational abilities," said Zhang Jie, who is in charge of the training project.
"He will fully concentrate on the work and strictly follow the orders of his masters," she added.
Many customers visited the small cafe after touring the popular temple, while others paid a special trip to back the autistic groups.
"I came to support the studious autistic teens, but found the pastries here are surprisingly good," said Raymond Yan, an accountant working in a nearby office building.
However, it was a bumpy experience for Feng to become a qualified baker, as well as to his mother.
Despite he having studied cooking, gardening and other basic skills at a downtown vocational school for those with learning difficulties, Feng found the bakery training difficult at first.
At his first class he collapsed on the floor and shouted. After the second class, Wu found he had plucked all his eyebrows because he felt bored.
"I tried to use his special interests of numbers and the Metro to persist," Wu recalled.
Feng can remember a car plate number with a single glimpse, as well as every station and table of the intricate Metro network of the city. He can quickly calculate the fastest Metro route and the length of the journey accurately.
"If there is no Metro malfunction, Feng is an extreme punctual person – not early or late but exactly at the appointed time," Wu said.
It took two hours by Metro from Feng's home in Dishui Lake in Pudong's Lingang area to the training center in outskirts Minhang. The tortuous journey for others was a happy journey for Feng.
"I told him as long as he can insist, he will be allowed to transfer among as many lines as he wished," Wu said.
Feng soon became accustomed to the training classes and his interest and flair for bakery was apparent.
His strong memory allowed him to master all the steps for different pastries, while his accuracy with numbers meant he could control the time and heat of baking, according Feng's master, who offers one-to-on guidance.
"He is just easy to get along with and can follow the procedures just like normal students," the master said.
Feng passed the final examination at the training center by making chocolate cookies last year and acquired the certificate as a dim sum chef with his seven classmates. But their internship plans were postponed by the COVID-19 resurgence until recently.
At the end of a training class, Feng baked several walnut muffins and brought them home to his mother, which became a pleasant surprise to Wu.
"I once assumed Feng would have to spend his life at home, but now I believe he can gradually involve into the society," Wu said.
China has more than 10 million autistic people, some of whom can gain employment and be self-reliant through vocational training and studies, according to the foundation.
The temple initially invited a group of autistic teens to spend a week there to learn traditional Chinese culture and talk with the monks.
The bashful children enjoyed the atmosphere and even made friends with the monks, inspiring the temple to launch the training program.
Additional training sessions will be launched for local autistic youths, including barista, coffee making and handcraft of "intangible cultural heritages," according to the foundation.