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Autistic children rise to occasion

Posted by: Phat Mama, 14-Nov-2010

“Autism isn’t a disease”, neither is it a “mental illness as perceived by society”. These strong words came from the Chairman of The National Autism Society of Malaysia, Teh Beng Choon and the Deputy Minister of Health, YB Datuk Rosnah Haji Abdul Rashid Shirlin who spoke at the launch of Suria KLCC’s Purple Day 2010 event last Thursday.

Umar Hazrizal charming his audience.

The truth of these words hit me hard as I watched the group of autistic children who formed the choir group NASOM Maestro performing for Purple Day 2010. These children come from normal families and are lucky enough to be detected as autistics at an early age. But not every autistic is as lucky as these children.

Teh said autism is a life-long disability that affects about one in every 110 children. This disability leaves them with varying degrees of impairment in communication, difficulties in interpersonal interaction and other behavioural issues.

But the children I met backstage before the kick-off of Purple Day 2010 seem like any other kid. They talked non-stop, joked with each other and smiled and waved at Ning Baizura who was the guest artiste for the day.

“Hi Ning,” said 10-year-old Hafiz Izudin Zainudin as he waived at Ning from far. Ning waived back and asked if he knew her, to which Hafiz replied: “Kenal. Penyanyi (I know you. You’re a singer).”

Later these children went onstage to deliver a two-song performance, which drove half of the people present to silent tears. Twelve-year-old Umar Hazrizal’s rendition of We Are the World and You Raised Me Up spellbound everyone.

Umar’s good vocals and superb interaction with the crowd just won the crowd over. He stunned us with his natural ease with his audience, getting them to participate in the singing by simply reaching out his hands to them and winning their hearts with his charming smile.

Backing him was Hafiz who delivered the songs with so much feeling that every now and then we watched him closed his eyes tight and gave it his best.

How can anyone not love these children, I thought?

Offstage, Umar is shy and constantly looks at the floor when he is asked a question. He would only answer when he is spoken to unlike Hafiz who volunteers information before he is even asked.

“I’m the third in the family but my mother called me Along,” he said. “My mother’s name is Hidiyati Basri,” he added.

Hafiz Izudin Zainudin (right) - very expressive singing.

Umar studies at the Sekolah Kebangsaan Setapak while Hafiz goes to the Sekolah Kebangsaan Lelaki Jalan Batu in Jalan Raja Laut, Kuala Lumpur.

As I spoke to Umar and Hafiz several others surrounded me and asked to join in the conversation. Each of these children has their own stories and they, just like any other child, loves the attention given to them.

And NASOM (The National Autism Society of Malaysia), which was formed in 1986 by parents and professionals, has done a tremendous job in giving all forms f support to autistics. Meanwhile, Purple Day 2010 is an effort by Suria KLCC in collaboration with NASOM. It is to raise awareness among society on the “needs” of autistics and to raise funds and provide support to these children.

NASOM spends about RM4 million every year to provide services to the 600 children under its care. The children are given therapy and are prepared for formal schooling, a process which will help them to adopt and adjust themselves into mainstream society.

Andrew Brian and YB Datuk Rosnah (back row) with the NASOM Maestro group.

Andrew Brian, CEO of Suria KLCC said Purple Day 2010, which will become an annual event, “is in line with Suria KLCC’s recognition of the increase in the cases of learning disabilities in Malaysia”.

He said the event will hopefully get the Malaysian society to be more aware and supportive of this vital cause.

One in 600 children in Malaysia is autistic and the figure is rising, so much so NASOM is struggling to accommodate these children in its centres, which are already filled to the brim.

It’s time we stop being afraid of autism. Educate ourselves on autism. We should as suggested by YB Datuk Rosnah “focus on what they (autistics) do rather than what they cannot do”.