The environment from an autistic teen girl’s perspective

Wan Jamila’s artwork is known for being detailed with intricate patterns. She draws events, passions and emotions based on her memory


AT ONLY 16 years old, Greta Thunberg became one of the recipients of the Right Livelihood Award 2019 on Sep 25, which is also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”.

The teenage Swedish climate change activist became a recipient after she delivered an emotionally driven speech during the United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit held in New York City (NYC) on Sep 23.

A flight to NYC would produce carbon emissions and being concerned about climate change, Thunberg sailed across the sea for two weeks on the Malizia II from Europe.

While many looked up to her as an inspiration for the youth, some mocked Thunberg and even called her a “mentally-ill Swedish child”.

Thunberg was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of autism that was adopted under the disorder’s umbrella.

The disorder was not considered a weakness to her as she embraced it and turned it into a “superpower”, smashing the stigma.

Thunberg believes that her Asperger’s Syndrome makes her think outside the box.

“She can speak well. The thing about this thing is when they are good at something, they can do very well in that,” said Noorhashimah Mohd Noordin.

Noorhashimah should know. She is the mother of an autistic child, who is one of the few autistic artists making their mark on the local art scene.

Noorhashimah’s daughter, Wan Jamila Wan Shaiful Bahri was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of four.

To date, the autistic savant has sold more than 90 paintings to collectors in Switzerland and around the world.

(From left) Noorhashimah, Wan Jamila, Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Dr Aminuddin pose in front of Wan Jamila’s painting titled ‘Unity in Diversity Skyline Series 3 A,B,C’, will be used as an image on Arca Putrajaya at Putra Square in front of the PM’s office

A Greener Future

The similarity between Thunberg and Wan Jamila is that they are both autistic teens who share the vision of saving the environment.

At the inaugural Art Includes 2019, which took place from Sept 23 till yesterday, Wan Jamila showcased her latest artworks — Fish Mosaic in Oil & Plastic Polluted Sea Series as well as her Green Cities Series.

Fish Mosaic in Oil & Plastic Polluted Sea Series is a series of paintings that shows a school of fish swimming in different colourful currents, with disposed tin cans and plastic bottles beneath them.

The brown-grey area at the bottom of the painting resembles fish bones, remains of sea creatures that were killed by pollution.

Wan Jamila got the inspiration to draw this piece when she and her family went to Kilim Geopark in Langkawi, Kedah.

“She started to draw this when we took her to Langkawi on a boat ride. When we stopped the boat, she saw the fish in the sea, the clear seawater. The fish were clumped together, like swimming in a school…so she came back and drew it,” her mother said.

The painting raises awareness about the devastating effects of sea pollution, no thanks to oil and plastic.

The dead fish were suffocated by the plastic rubbish and trapped in the oil.

“She painted about sea pollution because it was requested by a company from Switzerland,” Noorhashimah added.

Her Green Cities Series was Wan Jamila’s version of how she envisioned Kuala Lumpur (KL) as a green, eco-friendly city.

The paintings pictured the iconic buildings in KL and Putrajaya such as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the Petronas Twin Towers and the Prime Minister’s Office which were all covered in flowers and plants.

“For Green City, I asked Wan Jamila to complete the building in a green city so, she put all the flowers on the Malaysian buildings,” Noorhashimah said.

The message behind the painting is about global warming that has been caused by the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and that there is a need to balance concrete buildings with greenery.

It also reflects the spirit of togetherness among Malaysians who incorporate buildings and infrastructures into green cities.

“She’s very particular about the environment,” Noorhashimah said.

“Autistic individuals are very sensitive to their environment. They don’t like heat, and they dislike very high humidity. They want to feel comfortable or else they will feel irritated.”

Wan Jamila’s two series were displayed at the exhibition in tandem with the “green city” concept and sea pollution which is a popular agenda right now.

Movements like plastic straw bans is taking the world by storm as more people now realise the harmful effects of plastic straws on marine life.

A video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose went viral on YouTube with 37.81 million views.

Large corporations are already tackling this issue such as Starbucks Corp which aims to completely ban plastic store by 2020 over 28,000 stores worldwide.

Closer to home, the Selangor state government had placed a ban on plastic straws in all eateries beginning July 1.

Wan Jamila’s 1st fish mosaic sculpture and some selected paintings on display

Communicating Through Art

Hailing from Shah Alam, Wan Jamila has difficulty communicating verbally and interacting with other people, but she is fully aware of her surroundings.

“Initially she belonged in the medium spectrum because she didn’t have any verbal understanding. She didn’t know how to make eye contact and cried a lot.

“So I didn’t know how to handle her and I got a lot of advice from therapists and doctors,” Noorhashimah said.

The only way for Noorhashimah to communicate with her talented daughter was through her sketches and drawings. “She keeps on drawing and drawing because she cannot express herself verbally, she can only do so with her artwork.”

Noorhashimah explained that Wan Jamila has progressed a lot on her communication skills after injecting art therapy into her as well attending many exhibitions.

“She improved a lot because when Wan Jamila attends art exhibitions, she needs to meet new people and be interviewed.”

Through art, Wan Jamila learned how to focus and keep her attention for long periods when working on her paintings.

“She became very disciplined because when she realised that she had to present her work in the exhibition, she knew what it’s like. So, she would make sure that she finishes all her work. Now she has become very diligent in her working and timing.”

These paintings were exhibited at Cat Playground Showcase from 26th to 30th July 2019, at the Main Concourse at Sunway Putra Mall in KL

Art Style

Wan Jamila never attended formal art classes in painting, drawing or sketching when she was younger, but she had an inborn talent. She taught herself how to draw through her experiences and observations.

Her artwork is known for being detailed with intricate patterns. She draws events, passions and emotions based on her memory.

Wan Jamila installed digital software by herself at around the age of 10 and became fascinated by it, using her forefinger to draw, where she produced a thousand drawings.

Later, when Wan Jamila was 14, Noorhashimah decided to get help from a local artist and train her with proper drawing techniques.

The artists that Noorhasimah reached out to gave her the courage to start selling her daughter’s artworks.

When she opened the art booth at a local convention centre for the very first time, she received a lot of positive reception where many bought her art cards.

Some of the paintings by Wan Jamila (Sources:

Not Enough Awareness

When Wan Jamila was diagnosed with autism, Noorhashimah had no idea what the disorder was all about. Back then, none of her family members had any awareness of what autism is.

“And I was in the dark, but my friends were very supportive. When I told them I have an autistic child they are very supportive. They congratulated me for being able to announce that I have an autistic child because some people would prefer to keep it to themselves,” she said.

Noorhashimah found it challenging to take care of Wan Jamila as she was juggling her career as an architect and an associate professor.

During Wan Jamila’s early days, there were not many resources for autistic children and her family couldn’t afford to go to private therapies.

“They didn’t have Permata Kurnia at the time when Wan Jamila was diagnosed. Now, there’s Permata Kurnia which is very good, but it is limited. I heard that there is a long queue to be part of it,” Noorhashimah said.

She added that more similar facilities are needed as the number of autistic individuals is increasing.

The World Health Organisation has estimated that one in 160 children has been diagnosed with ASD and the number is increasing globally.

Wan Jamila will be showcasing her artworks next year at the Langkawi Art Biennale 2020, which will be held from March 18 to 24 at Kelab Muay Thai, at Kampung Pantai Cenang.