A beautiful mind

Showing solidarity: Participants to the World Autism Day held on April 2 walk down the streets of Yogyakarta. Antara/Wahyu Putro
Showing solidarity: Participants to the World Autism Day held on April 2 walk down the streets of Yogyakarta. Antara/Wahyu Putro

For the first 10 years of her son’s life, Sri Astuti never heard him utter a word.

Her son Raditya Parasadi is autistic. When he was growing up, information on autism was hard to come across, Sri explained.

Now, 13 years later, Raditya communicates freely. He can hold conversations on various topics from religion to marriage. He also has a penchant for designing clothes.

While he has now blossomed into a talented young man, Sri said raising an autistic child wasn’t easy, mainly because society perceives autistic children or people as strange and freakish.

Raditya once worked in a hotel, Sri said, but when his old boss moved on, Raditya was laid off because his new superior wasn’t open to having an autistic employee.

Actress-cum-activist Christine Hakim recently launched a campaign to eliminate the negative stigma surrounding autism, which was accompanied by a documentary film on autistic children.

Christine, through her foundation Christine Hakim Feature, aims to educate the public about autism.

“People say the [autistic] children looks crazy, while in fact they [children] are not. We have to approach them to understand them,” Christine said during the launch of the documentary.

For her campaign, Christine is working with neurologist Andreas Harry as a producer and advisor, and Ricky Avenzora, a lecturer in child recreation and disabilities, as a documentary film director.

Sri said that meeting with Christine, Andreas and Ricky was like a miracle.

“I don’t shed tears anymore. I’ve cried too much already,” she said.

“I say stop the tears. Don’t be sad. It’s a miracle from god. Our child is a gift we should care for. Give as much love as you can,” Sri said.

Autistic children and their parents gathered recently in a restaurant in a central Jakarta office tower for lunch. They came to share their stories and watch an extract of the documentary film on austistic children Love Me as I am.

Christine, award-winning actress who has produced documentaries on Indonesian heritage, started doing research for the documentary on autism in January this year. The film’s launch on April 1 was meant to coincide with Autism Day on April 2. Christine plans to screen the documentary film in schools, to change the perception that autistic children should not attend regular public schools.

Studying in a regular school allows autistic children to interact with other children who aren’t autistic, she went on. Children who aren’t autistic also benefit because they get to know about autism, and stop stigmatizing it.

Documenting the lives of autistic children and their families has been both painful and inspiring for Christine. She said she wanted to educate people about what autism was really about.

Autism is not a disease, according to the medical community, Andreas said. It is a syndrome caused by a different anatomic structure in the brain, Andreas explained. Difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, including difficulties making eye-contact; unstable emotions and having one repetitive single interest were the general symptoms of autism.

According to Andreas, the film plays an important role raising awareness about autism among society.
“There are more children born with autism than before,” he said.

In 2008, eight out of 1,000 babies were born with autism, compared to one in 1,000 in 2000, Andreas stated.

Andreas, whose child is autistic, said autistic children had great potential in several fields. “My child is a doctor at 21,” he said.

He added that researchers in the UK claimed Einstein might have been autistic. He has symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, which is a form of autism.

The documentary recounts the stories of autistic children with exceptional talents. One of the talented children is 7-year-old Michael Anthony. He is autistic and blind.

The sound of his fingers dancing on the piano keys comes out like that of an adult maestro playing classical music. Christine said that listening to Michael play brought tears to her eyes.

Michael can play around 100 songs, including sonnets from Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. His mother said he first listened to his brother playing the piano, and then started to play around with the piano himself.

Andreas said that at his age, Michael could still be exposed to different areas of interest. Music might just be one of many areas Michael possesses talent in, he said.

“He might have more than one talent,” he said.

Emilio, another autistic child, does paintings with vivid colors. One of his paintings could have sold for US$5,000, but Emilio and his family declined to sell it.

Christine said it was important for the government and the public to get rid of any misconception about autistic children. The latter should be allowed to study in public schools and interact with non-autistic children, she said. Denying them a place in regular schools was a violation of human rights.

“Because our principle is education for all,” she said.

Irma, a mother of two children, said her autistic son had learned to interact socially with his younger sister, who isn’t autistic.

Christine explained that autistic children improved their social skills when studying alongside other children in regular schools. Children who are not autistic care more for their autistic friends and help the latter at school.

She cited as an example Global Mandiri School, which has 59 autistic students.

“The students [who are not autistic] do not tease their autistic friends. They are caring and they help them out,” Christine said.

Andreas added that autistic people could have an independent and meaningful life.

“In the end they are able to fall in love and form families. We want to go to that direction,” he said.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Life | Wed, April 13 201

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