Living with autism — of nature and nurture…

For people with autism to survive and excel, they might need that extra nudge and attention, as well as the support of those closest to them


Yuri Azzari (centre) could be one of the fortunate souls to have great nurturing parents who have his best interest at heart

STEPHEN Wiltshire is an Englishman who is known for his ability to draw a landscape from memory — after seeing it just once. His work has gained worldwide popularity, and his artworks have been shown in various parts of the world.

One of his most notable pieces would be his building-by-building rendition of New York City’s aerial view, after flying over the area in a helicopter for some 20 minutes.

Imagine 305 sq miles (790 sq km) of probably the most dense urban construction in the world stored in Wiltshire’s brain within 20 minutes before he transferred the massive landscape on a 19ft long swatch of paper using a series of fine-tipped black pens in seven days.

Wiltshire is a savant — a person affected with a developmental disorder (as autism or intellectual disability) — who exhibits exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field (as mathematics or music).

Those who have seen Rain Man — a film about Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant that is brilliantly portrayed by Dustin Hoffman — might have a better grasp of the condition.

While the term “autism” might be viewed by the more ignorant as a limitation to a person’s growth, parents with children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) would tell you that patience would always be the best answer and solution.

For people with autism to survive and excel, they might need that extra nudge and attention, as well as the support of those closest to them.

One of them is Yuri Azzari Yuri Zaharin, a 28-year-old autistic artist who is based in Seri Kembangan, Selangor.

‘The Eye’ — one of Yuri Azzari’s notable paintings — is created with strokes that swirl around each other which resemble an eye

His doting mother, Dr Che An Abdul Ghani, has been training Yuri Azzari to become independent by teaching him all the necessary skills. Still, she is concerned about her son’s safety when he goes out to work.

“We have not let Azzari go out to work yet because we have the fear, which is common for parents. We don’t think he can survive at a workplace. So, this is the reason we are developing his artwork, so that he can work from home,” the linguistics lecturer at Universiti Putra Malaysia said.

Since Yuri Azzari’s artworks are getting more attention lately, Che An decided to approach SME Corp for advice on how to turn her son’s artworks and merchandises into a business.

“It’s just a start. We met an officer who told us that we need to start building Azzari’s brand first, and then we follow up later with the business,” Yuri Azzari’s father, Yuri Zaharin, said.

Currently, Yuri Azzari’s parents are looking at e-commerce platforms to sell his paintings since online shopping is the trend nowadays.

“Lazada was the first and only (platform) that we looked into for online business. Azzari’s webpage is currently being developed, so that his drawings can be ordered through the webpage.

“But we still need to know how we can increase the hits, which is why we need advice from SME Corp,” Yuri Zaharin, who is an information technology consultant at Huawei Technologies (M) Sdn Bhd, said.

Yuri Azzari’s parents have also reached out to local brands to feature his artworks.

So far, local brand Fit Rebel has included Yuri Azzari’s abstract paintings on their work- out tights, while Touch ‘n Go has featured four of his artworks — two of which are abstracts while the other two feature a mosque and a kampung house.

Yuri Azzari’s paintings have been sold through exhibitions and commissions, and over the past 10 years, he has managed to sell 15 paintings which are worth between RM3,000 and RM10,000.

“This year, Azzari has not sold any paintings. However, he has sold a lot of his merchandises…not less than RM5,000. We had several exhibitions since January, so the leggings were sold out. In fact, the favourite item is legging,” said Che An.

Yuri Azzari’s artistic talent was discovered when he was four years old. His parents realised that he liked to scribble and doodle.

“He would pick any piece of paper that he could find…even my grocery receipt, the bag of envelopes, or any type of paper, and he would draw,” she said.

Yuri Azzari could be one of the fortunate souls to have great nurturing parents who have his best interest at heart.

To further develop his talent, Yuri Azzari’s parents signed him up to be trained by renowned fine artist Raja Azhar Idris, who is known for his impressionistic works.

Yuri Azzari has been under Raja Azhar’s mentorship for almost 10 years now.

“I knew about Raja Azhar through a friend. I gave him a call and asked him if he would like to try teaching an artist with a special condition.

“He said he’d give it a try and Azzari was his first autistic apprentice,” Che An said.

Raja Azhar has since taught six other children with autism.

When Yuri Azzari started, his subjects were mainly sceneries and buildings. These days, abstract seems to be his forte.

“We do try to encourage Azzari to harness other skills…but when you leave him alone, that’s his forte. It’s just something from his own creative mind. As Raja Azhar puts it: ‘Let it be’,” Yuri Zaharin said.

Whenever Yuri Azzari starts painting, the parents could never figure out how it ends. But then, aren’t artists known for their unpredictability?

“Azzari is unique compared to other autistic artists because he likes bright colours and he loves abstracts. He doesn’t draw animals or plants that much,” Che An said.

Perhaps, one of Yuri Azzari’s notable paintings is “The Eye”, as Che An calls it, which seems to be quite, err, eye-catching. “The Eye” is created with strokes that swirl around each other which, at a glance, resemble an “eye”. The copperish tone of the painting (which can turn grey under a dark setting) creates a mysterious and eerie feeling as you gaze at the “eye”.

“It’s very interesting because he didn’t use paint brushes for this one,” Che An said.

Yuri Zaharin is able to estimate his son’s moods through his paintings.

“Whether he’s in a good mood or a lousy mood would depend much on the colours. When he’s in a happy mood, the colours are very bright, very strong, when he’s not, it can be darker,” he said.

Yuri Azzari belongs to the higher-functioning autism group.

Yuri Azzari has sold a lot of his merchandises…not less than RM5,000

“He is not completely independent, but he can do many things. He’s also very intellectual and we can talk about a lot of things with him. When he’s in the mood, he is very responsive,” said Che An.

Che An and Yuri Zaharin faced many challenges as parents of an autistic child. It was much more difficult for them because Yuri Azzari was diagnosed in the early 90s when ASD was not recognised by the masses in Malaysia yet.

“We had a lot of challenges when we brought him outside. When we ate at a restaurant, Azzari would be making all of those noises and take other people’s food. Back then, people were unfamiliar with autism, and labelled him as crazy. So, crazy or gila is the common word we heard,” she said.

Nowadays, more people are aware of ASD and they do not face much of a harsh judgement from the public like they used to.

“The first time when I told my friends and family members that Azzari is autistic, there are usually two reactions. The first one is the ‘pity sort’…and then there’s also the other group that would always ask, ‘what’s his talent’? People sort of assume that autistic people do have some talent,” Yuri Zaharin said.

Yuri Zaharin’s friends and family members were not surprised when he and his wife showed them their son’s paintings, as they are supportive of the young artist’s work.

“Azzari is the eldest with four other growing siblings at that time. We had to spend a lot of time with Azzari more than the other kids, mainly because we had to take him to so many therapies and activities,” Che An said.

While there are services provided by the government to help autistic individuals, including speech and occupational therapies, many had to seek aid from private practitioners which is very costly.

“To parents who have children with autism, I hope you stay strong. They’re bound to face so many challenges ahead of them.

“And be prepared that these challenges do not go away, because autism is for a lifetime. It gets more challenging as they grow older…And we are getting older,” Che An said.

A father’s unconditional love

In general, within a month or so, the autistic staff should be able to handle work on their own at the cafe

THREE years ago, Mohd Adli Yahya, a father of an autistic son, opened up the first cafe that employs autistic and special needs staff called Autism Cafe Project (ACP). It started out in IM4U Central in Puchong with just him and his autistic son, Muhammad Luqman Shariff. Back then, all his 10 staff were boys.

“The reason why we set up (our cafe) at IM4U Central in Puchong is because there were very few customers. If we had so many customers, the boys could not stand the pressure.

“IM4U was a very controlled environment because not everybody could go in. You need to have access cards and there were security guards,” he said.

The cafe was moved to SACC Mall in Shah Alam in early April. The new address was chosen as Mohd Adli felt his staff were ready to face the real world.

“The business model that we created earlier was basically to train them to be credible workers. We couldn’t pay much, but when they’re good and are capable enough to work elsewhere, they earn a lot more.

“So, we don’t keep them, we encourage them to actually move on from the cafe.” Now, Mohd Adli has changed the business model for the project. From training them just to work, he now trains his staff to be simple entrepreneurs.

Apart from the food, the staff members are now moving into art and craft with bracelets and bags as their products.

“We let them run the show. We’d just sit back a bit…we find that is the best approach for them rather than pay them salary, which would probably be, say, RM10 per hour.

“The most hours they spend would only get them RM40, but when they sell their craft, they earn a lot more. So, at the same time, you are actually getting them to be business-minded,” Mohd Adli said.

Currently, the cafe has a staff of seven, of which four are active, while the rest would be at the cafe, on and off. Mohd Adli also has 14 boys who are part-timers.

“The bread and butter for this project is actually catering. Without it, we can’t survive. Apart from that, we have our products and the money we make from the sale goes back to the cafe and sustains the project.

“Travelling costs money…so does all the meetings. So, the fund must be there,” Mohd Adli.

To start the ACP, Mohd Adli had to quit his job as an ED at Standard Chartered Foundation.

“When we started this cafe, I had to sell one of my cars. I’m not rich but I knew I had to do something. The money from the car was the seed fund for the project,” he added.

As much as Mohd Adli appreciates any form of donation, he is not comfortable running the cafe and other projects like a non-governmental organisation. Obviously, he preferred it the real and harder way.

As for now, the only donation he would ask for is not money, but extra cups and plates for the cafe.

“Every autistic individual is different. You can’t simply say that by six months, they would be able to work on their own. We have a boy who has been with us for almost two months.

“Although he is quite intelligent, he still has a long way to go. But in general, within a month or so, they should be able to handle themselves.”

ACP is a certified social enterprise under the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre.

“Sometimes, people don’t understand the concept and some would say that I’m taking advantage of the situation. I need to actually minimise all this negativity, by getting all the necessary certification from the authorities. They are also helping us in terms of marketing and operations,” Mohd Adli said.

ACP now focuses on training those who are at the low-functioning spectrum.

“My son is low functioning, but he can perform certain tasks that are very minimal such as carrying stuff. Now, he’s able to do more than that. It requires time and patience. You have to play by their tune, not ours. It is a challenge…” Mohd Adli added.