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Shaking off the stigma

Five-year-old Ali used to be a non-verbal kid. According to her mom, Andrea Calboniro, for almost three years, all Ali did was cry whenever she needed or wanted something. Ali is on the spectrum.

An individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may have problems with social interaction and communication skills, including appearing not to hear when they are called even by their names at times, resists cuddling and holding and retreats into his or her own world.

But on the eve of her fifth birthday, Ali and her classmates, who, like her, are on the spectrum too, eagerly interacted with fellow kids, excitedly went on stage and happily danced to Taylor’s Swift’s “Shake It Off”. They represented their school, Therakids Learning Academy in a talent competition entitled, “Autism Got Radiance!”.Their group and three contingents of students with special needs, freely performed in front of a huge, friendly and supportive crowd. What made their performance even extra special was that they did it during World Autism Awareness Day.

Everyone giggled, clapped and cheered while watching Ali and 6 classmates shake, kick, snap, clap and sway to the beat. Ayala Malls Capitol Central’s activity center was filled with children with special needs, parents, SPED teachers and advocates from different parts of Negros Occidental attending the special event organized by Happy Beginners School of Learning, Inc in coordination with Think Inc and Therakids Learning Academy.

Ali and the dance crew of Therakids Learning Academy that won champion in the group category.*
Sebastian Solitario of Victorias North Elementary School SPED, champion in the “Autism Got Radiance!” Talent Competition (individual category) serenaded the audience with “Can’t Help Falling In Love”; at right, Ali waving “hi!” as her mother Andrea, introduces her to Yasss!*

Andrea was all smiles that whole time she was watching her daughter perform before a crowd that did not judge or discriminate. It is her dream to see Ali grow and reach her full potential as an individual through the support of the community. She admitted her family feels the stigma that society attaches to her little girl’s condition.

“Aside from a child’s family’s acceptance, love, understanding and patience, the child also needs the support of the community. When our children see and feel genuine understanding and concern of the community to them, they become more empowered,” she said.

Lemuel Flores of Bacolod SPED belted Aegis’ hit “Halik”. The crowd roared, clapped and waved pompoms as the performer passionately and intensely interpreted the popular videoke favorite. On the other hand, Sebastian Solitario of Victorias North Elementary School went beat boxing when he noticed a delay in the playback of the minus one for “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”. The witty boy in pink long sleeves and a black bowtie sure knew how to entertain an audience. Aside from his talent in singing, his wit and stage presence endeared him to the audience.

Meanwhile, Ymille Rey Bangita-on of Crispino V. Ramos Elementary School SPED drew a robot while Gabrielle Golez of Victorias North Elementary School SPED mimicked Sarah Geronimo’s expressive and high energetic movements while dancing “Tala”. Happy Beginners School of Learning’s Carina Joyce Haban was dressed as Moana while singing Auli’l Cavralho’s “How Far I’ll Go”, the theme of the Disney computer-animated musical action-adventure fantasy film.  Tears welled up in the audience’ eyes upon hearing Roy Malazarte’s touching rendition of the worship song, “Give Thanks”.      

Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrician Dr. Mark Anthony Talatala said spreading awareness is not the only objective of the annual celebration. “First, we need to recognize that there is autism. Second, we accept that they be part of our community and third, that we give them the opportunity to showcase their talents. That is called radiancy,” stressed Dr. Talatala.

Harold Mission of Sagay City accompanied his 9-year-old son Ilaya to the celebration in Bacolod City on Palm Sunday. Harold believes activities of this nature empower both children with special needs and their parents. “To say that our journey as parents of kids with special needs is difficult is an understatement. A lot of families struggle because they do not understand what their children are going through. We need to keep spreading awareness so that parents can seek necessary interventions so that they can properly address the needs of kids on the spectrum,” he said.

Students from different SPED schools in Bacolod and Negros Occidental performed in front of a very supportive and appreciative crowd on Palm Sunday.*

Ranil Sorongon, former executive director of Autism Society of the Philippines and  part of the Secretariat of the ASEAN Autism Network based in Bangkok, Thailand, who was present during the celebration, impressed the vital role of government in supporting individuals with special needs. He also stressed the need to continue spreading awareness on ASD especially in the countryside. 

“The incidence of ASD is rising but the services and programs for these individuals are very, very few, especially in a country like the Philippines. The government, being the primary duty bearer, needs to provide the services because it is their mandate. We need to call on the government from the national level to the local level to live their mandate according to the UN Convention on the rights of PWDs,” emphasized Sorongon.

He added that the government must look at the condition of individuals with special needs from the human rights perspective and not on the charity model. That is why according to him, the theme of this year’s celebration emphasizes the importance of recognizing the contributions of persons within the spectrum in the home, community and in the arts and for their total inclusion in all of the affairs of the society.

In consonance with the theme, Dr. Maria Carolina Alejano, developmental pediatrician, pointed out that society must not only be stuck at the awareness and acceptance levels.

“Initially, we were all rooting for the awareness of the condition. But then, now, aside from awareness, we are already at the second level which is acceptance. I would also want to go another step higher –  to give them the ability not only to be accepted, but the ability to be able to work with other people in the society,” qualified Alejano. 

Sebastian and Ali’s group went home champions that Sunday. But more than the prize and the recognition they got for their performances, these children and their fellow students on the spectrum made a bold statement that like typical kids their age, they too deserve to freely express themselves and enjoy what life has to offer without unfair judgment and discrimination. And if it is not too much to ask, that society joins them in shaking off the stigma that stems from ignorance and misinformation.*

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