Mark listened intently to his yoga instructor.
“Right knee up,” the teacher said.
Mark lifted his right knee and wrapped his arms around it as he attempted to keep his balance on one foot.
He failed but immediately went back to the pose, focused on the instructions of his yoga teacher.
At first glance, you wouldn’t think that Mark, 18, has Autism Spectrum Disorder, which he has been diagnosed with since he was three years old.
Joining him that day were a dozen or so young adults on the spectrum, each with their own unique challenges. All of them, however, were enthusiastic in participating. And except for one – who would wander around from time to time, all were intent on following instructions.
It was Wednesday PWAy Day at the Autism Society Philippines (ASP) office and for that week, the chosen activity was yoga. For the last couple of years, the Autism Society Philippines has been holding the PWAy Day for persons with autism (PWA). Other activities include cooking, dancing, games and various forms of exercise.
Maureen Valdez, Mark’s mother, said the activities have helped her son talk more, socialize more since they started attending back in 2017.
“He used to be very quiet,” she said. “Now, he’s excited every Wednesday…He’s learned a lot already.”
“Coffee. Cooking,” Mark tells us when asked about his favorite activities. “Like art, dancing.”
BAND OF MOTHERS
The Autism Society Philippines (ASP) started in 1989. ASP President Mona Magno Veluz said autism was a “new” condition at that time and a group of mothers “banded together to look for books, to attend international seminars, and to help other parents all over the Philippines access the information.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the autism spectrum as a “range of conditions characterised by some degree of impaired social behaviour, communication and language, and a narrow range of interests and activities that are both unique to the individual and carried out repetitively.”
WHO estimates that 1 in 160 children around the world has an autism spectrum disorder. In the Philippines, the number of people diagnosed with the disorder has been increasing, from only 500,000 in 2008 to one million in 2018, according to a report from the Philippine Information Agency.
Today, ASP has 13,000 members and 97 chapters across the country.
Veluz said ASP aims to empower families and create “institutional mechanism’s towards building a society where persons on the autism spectrum become the best of their potentials — self-reliant, independent, productive, socially-accepted.”
This is why ASP holds workshops for members like Mark so he can be trained to care of himself.
Valdez said her son used to stay silent - not knowing how to talk or even to cry.
“The socializing helps,” she said.
Now, Mark knows how to cook and can do chores.
ASP Program Coordinator Cenin Faderogao said their activities help boost the confidence of their members.
“They’re able to interact. We used to have a participant who could not talk but when he saw others like him, he learned to socialize. He now has friends,” Faderogao said.
Elizabeth Montenegro Rye, who specializes in teaching yoga for people with special needs, said yoga can be very beneficial for persons with autism like Mark.
“You see self-injurious behavior start to diminish,” she said. “Just teaching them how to breathe…helps them calm down.
“Persons with disabilities have low muscle tone or their muscles are not that strong. So, yoga can address that also,” Rye said.
During the session, participants are not only taught how to stretch and do yoga poses, they are also made to stay still and, at one point, lie down and rest. Rye said she likes to see the participants nap, especially those who tend to be restless.
While autism awareness has been improving worldwide, a lot of Filipinos still believe in stereotypes, which make fun of persons with disabilities.
Just recently, young Filipino netizens have been posting videos of themselves pretending to have autism as part of a so-called social media challenge.
“Don’t they realize that it’s insulting for the parents or those with autism?” Faderogao said. “It’s not even like that in real life. It’s degrading. They are not helping persons with autism gain the confidence that they need.”
ASP Vice President Perlita So, who has two children on the spectrum, said it’s painful to watch videos of Filipinos making fun of people with autism. Of her two sons, one has high-functioning autism and has even graduated from college.
“The world can be so harsh sometimes,” she said. “I end up wondering how I can release my son to the world when it’s like that. How can I prepare them for that?”
Veluz said people who are not exposed to adults and children on the autism spectrum “subscribe to stereotypes, perpetuated by dramatic portrayals in the media.”
“Some would associate autism exclusively with intellectual disability; while others would look at all of them as savants. Some think of them as perpetual ‘special children,’ denying adults on the spectrum mature life experiences, sex education and the right to self-determination,” she said.
She pointed out that autism is “simply a variation of the human condition where those on the spectrum "think differently and process experiences differently.”
This is why ASP is finding ways to help children and adults with autism overcome or deal with challenges when it comes to communication and social interaction.
Among their most successful projects is Autism Works, which started out as an employment placement program.
“Young adults on the autism spectrum aspire for vocations they love, just like everyone else,” she said. “But the workplace isn’t always ready for them; and vice versa.”
Last year, Bandila featured Autism Works, which involves assessing the strengths and interests of the participants.
Among those featured was Matt Somera who works for a Japanese restaurant.
“I’m thankful that I have a job here. I’m able to help my family,” said Somera, who has learned teppanyaki-style cooking.
Somera’s supervisor said their employees from Autism Works are easy to teach and can easily do the work of other staff members.
In ASP’s Humans of Autism video series, they feature members employed in offices, supermarkets and restaurants.
“They have certain skills that are perfect for certain industries,” Veluz said.
“If you teach them, they can be better than other people,” Faderogao said. “They can be persistent.”
Veluz said it’s important for adults with autism to find a skill or work because many of them who graduate from school end up homebound, “doing the household chores, shrinking their world to their family members.”
Through Autism Works and PWay Days, ASP members are able to make friends and feel that they belong to a community.
While not all are ready to hold full-time jobs, ASP has found a way to help members earn a living.
They are now being taught how to make chocolates and make printed shirts. The earnings from their online selling platform are used to buy more materials and to pay for their labor.
“Skills for economic independence is very important, especially for families who do not have the means to leave a child on the autism spectrum a nest egg for the future,” Veluz said.
Since starting the program, ASP has helped open 200 positions for persons with autism in 32 companies.
They are hoping that other businesses would open their doors for persons with autism who work just as hard as other people despite their disabilities. In the end, giving them opportunities not only help them earn a living but also allow them to contribute to society.