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A choice purposefully made

I just turned a year older. For me, every birthday is an opportunity to reflect.  It was a no-frills-natal day. It took a pause and asked myself “what do I do and why do I do it”. Self-reflection is something that every person must do because it is the key to self-awareness as it allows us to look neutrally at our thoughts, emotions and actions.

Self-reflection brought me to my current passion aside from teaching and journalism – advocating for support for children with special needs. After my contract with ABS-CBN expired in August 2020 as a result of the shutdown, I tried my hands at vlogging. It is one activity I enjoy because it another platform that allows me to tell stories that matter. But aside from content creation, vlogging also opened an opportunity to be involved in another advocacy. What I thought was a one-shot deal led to another project and to more vlogs until I found myself being moved by the different stories of children with special needs.

Everybody happy! P3PWD Partylist Rep. Rowena Guanzon bonding with classmates and teachers of nephew Greg in Happy Beginners School of Learning. School President Anne Marie Makilan and the school staff warmly welcomed Guanzon.*
Students with special needs dancing during the variety show which was part of the National Autism Consciousness Week in January.*
Brent Nighel Anzano assisting Greg Guanzon clear a container at the water refilling station; right, JB Arroyo attending to a customer buying bread from the school bake shop*

Working with Special Education (SPED) teachers and interacting with gifted students of Happy Beginners School of Learning opened my eyes to the fact that, contrary to the belief of many that children with special needs are mentally handicapped or have low intelligence and are incapable of reaching their fullest potential, they are actually no different from neurotypicals and can even outshine us in areas like mathematics, arts and science, among others.

To prove my point: JB and Brent were still small when I first met them in school while covering a campus activity many more than a decade ago. They were often restless, not communicative and very aloof. They both had sensory issues and disliked being exposed to crowds and loud sounds. Both are on the spectrum. Fast forward to 2022 when I attended and covered a crafts exhibit of the school in partnership with the Department of Trade and Industry’s One Town One Product Provincial Showroom in a shopping mall, I found a grown-up JB doing live painting in front of a marveling crowd. On the other hand, Brent showed the audience how skillful and creative his hands were in making handicrafts that are now on display and for sale in the OTOP Store in Ayala Capitol Central.  The once withdrawn JB sings and likes showing his talents before an audience! Brent’s mother sent me a message and told me that her once shy son is more confident now and looks forward to opportunities to showcase his gifts and even be featured in vlogs. Who would have thought that children with autism would one day enjoy facing and performing in front of people?

And then, there’s Elynde, who I met in a bank when she and fellow students saved their earnings from selling handicrafts one rainy morning. Unlike her elder brother Eldred who is friendly, little Elynde is reticent and can be moody at times. But she easily got along with me and giggled while engaging in a mostly non-verbal banter with me. She was so comfortable with me that she told me her top secret and made me promise not to spill the beans to Teacher Kaye. Haha!

Atty. Juliana Carbon and Dr. Mark Anthony Talatala awarding Rand Benedict Babor (4th from left) of Handumanan SPED Center the grand prize in the assisted poster-making contest during the 27th National Autism Consciousness Week in Bacolod City.*
Yasss! chatting with RJ and Greg in the kitchen after the boys finished making sinamak and pinakurat.*

The latest addition to our growing brood of Happy B angels is Manong Greg, son of Negros Occidental Board Member Pal Guanzon and nephew of P3PWD Partylist Rep. Rowena Guanzon. Manong Greg enjoys making sinamak and pinakurat or spiced vinegar and sandwich spread. He takes pride doing chores like doing the laundry and working at the water refilling station.

Rep. Guanzon visited her nephew and classmates in the Transition Class in school one afternoon.         

“This is my first time in Manong Greg’s school. He is so happy, he doesn’t want to miss class every day. It’s the first time I’ve seen Greg do work. He has never done house work. He has shown a lot of improvement. He now has eye contact. He is in an environment that he knows he is free and he is safe. I think it’s important to give them confidence,” the solon happily shared.

Stories like these warm my heart and remind me how those who are blessed with ample resources must use their blessings to be able to give a voice to sectors that are often not given much attention.

Dr. Mark Anthony Talatala, development and behavioral pediatrician emphasized that what these children need are physical, occupational and speech therapy.

“We need to recognize that these children do exist, that they have a special place in this world despite their disabilities and they can function and they may be able to do well and survive.  As long as there is early recognition and intervention, we can maximize the potential of the child. If we are able to do that, nothing is impossible for them,” explained Talatala. 

Meanwhile, Guanzon said there are many cities that can actually afford providing therapists to those who are in need but they are not doing it because it did not occur to them that they can. “It is possible,” she stressed.

It is high time that local government officials pay more attention to this sector and help provide them with the intervention that these children need.

Guanzon brought up her concern for persons with special needs to the Vice Mayors League of the Philippines recently during the observance of National Autism Consciousness Week. 

“If a child has autism, he’s not gonna be cured of autism next year. We need these local initiatives that only need understanding of the situation of persons with autism and down syndrome and other persons with disability. If the LGUs can afford it, can they please give a monthly disability allowance to children who, for example, have cerebral palsy? Actually, Bacolod City now has passed a budget ordinance for that for disability allowance monthly for PWDs with preferential action for children with disabilities,” said Guanzon.

Being able to tell the stories of these amazing kids and the miracles God sends their families is a blessing. Every time I get to document a phase in their lives that reveals what they are capable of doing, I get to realize that they can be great at something, and can even be better than us neurotypicals who are easily distracted and who pay less attention to detail. Children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have intense and highly-focused interests. There are even children who are on the spectrum and are also intellectually gifted. They are called “twice exceptional” or 2e kids.       

My prayer is for the world to see and treat atypical kids as no different from neurotypicals and those who are capable of helping (especially government) will generously extend much needed help for early intervention so that these kids can be trained and empowered.

As for me, I will keep on documenting, writing and telling their stories, give them a voice and a platform so that the world will know how amazing they are.

Why do I do it? Simple: it brings me joy – a choice purposefully made.*

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March 2023

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