“Different, not less”
Autism is not much of a conversed topic within our community. Sure, we all have heard the word before, but are we well aware of what Autism is? Did you know that despite the impression that was given to us, the said condition is a neurotypical disorder rather than a disability? I guess no. Besides, I think we all can agree to the fact that the majority of the people, including myself were pretty much in the dark about ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and its untold facts. Hence, to feed my curiosity, I decided to apply for this particular project, to begin with.
Project ‘Spectra’ is an initiative originated by the Public Relations Avenue of Rotaract Club of Faculty of Science, University of Colombo. With a slogan stating “Embrace the Au-someness”, the main concept of Spectra was to raise awareness on Autism Spectrum Disorder within the Sri Lankan community this Autism awareness month, which falls in April. As learning the signs is important in helping with the challenges that may present to ourselves or to those around us, this project aimed to minimize existing misguided information about Autism Spectrum Disorder as a whole and to improve awareness as well as compassion towards autistic children and adults.
Project Spectra officially kick-started in early April. The POC was chosen from the members of PR, IT, and Editor Teams of our Rotaract club. It was selected and announced on the 31st of March 2021. Honestly, I think at the start when we signed up for this project, many of us in the POC didn’t have a clue about what we were going to do, of course except for our amazing project co-chairs Hiruni, Bimsara, Azam, and Irushi who were the pioneers of this whole initiative. Immediately following the selection of POC, a meeting was called to elaborate more about the whole conception and soon after, it all dawned upon us indeed that this would be a real tough grind.
Initially, the project consisted of two phases; phase 1 – an informative post series, phase 2 – a cycling event to raise awareness and to raise funds for a center/organization devoted to people on the spectrum, along with an article series depicting the challenges and hardships faced by them and their families. Throughout the whole scheme, PR Directors Reshani akki and Ruchira aiya accompanied by our VPs Sithira aiya and Sachindra aiya guided us and assisted us by tossing suggestions whenever needed. As editors, me and Cabilan, were in charge of creating the content, especially for phase 1 together with Iman, our PR coordinator. Since Autism is kind of a foreign concept to all of us, we had to do a lot of fact-finding and be extra cautious at the same time because of the subtle sensitivity regarding the said subject. Every so often we had to change the content after showing it to the project co-chairs or the two Directors and VPs. In the case of our IT mastermind Asala, I think the situation was not much different as well.
While all this was happening we drew ourselves up for the upcoming second phase: Miles together, a fundraiser cycling event that was scheduled to be held on the 2nd of May, 2021. With a time span of less than a month, we had a great deal to sort out. Luckily, by that time most of the POC had finished their exams, except for us bio people who had practical sessions to cover, so although it was kind of a burden, we somehow managed to pull through. Negotiating sponsorships with various cooperate sectors to checking up into arrangements of the venue, our two delegates Susara, Ganeshiny, logistics team Dinushka, Sachintha, and our finance coordinators Sahan aiya, and Lakshan put in a lot of work on par with project co-chairs, PR Directors and the two VPs. This was not exactly a breeze, as it was the New Year vacations, and also due to the already prevailing Covid-19 hazard.
Bellanwila Cycling track was selected as our venue for the cycling event. Many of us in the POC visited there to finalize the sortings of the venue. By far this is the first time I saw our Spectra team look so enthusiastic about the entire operation. As an added bonus point, we got to see the cycling skills of our very own members, especially Reshani akki’s and Ganeshiny’s ‘Guide to handle a bicycle’.
Not always things go smoothly and according to the plan. The tedium of the work was hard to handle sometimes and well, things sort of started going haywire. As the IT workload of the two phases shot up in a blinding speed, Ganeshiny also had to partake in the chorus with Asala and Dinal. Now and then Sithira aiya also had to chip in to lessen the weight on their shoulders. If briefly stated, the main difficulty we faced was, we lacked enough manpower in every aspect. At last, another group consisting Buwaneka, Yasas, Pramudi, Oshadi, Ruwinya, Sajani and Navodya were called up for the extra help.
Once again, step by step things was on the right track, with the communion of everyone. Nonetheless, the mountain of work and whatnot laid ahead of us, we all were in high spirits, thinking of upcoming Miles together. Since this year all of the physical activities and projects were cut in because of the disease, we couldn’t hold much of physical projects as they did in other years. Hence we were waiting, with high anticipation for this project to happen. But Alas! There was only a week left when the Covid-19 struck again; a sudden increase of the disease, which had been toning down during the past months. The number of patients skyrocketed unexpectedly and we could do nothing but postpone the event, conforming to the government’s new restrictions. Well, things converted into a chaotic mess as all of our high hopes shattered. It felt like we are back to square one and have to begin from the scratch. But what was done was done. It was not like we could go against the authority and endanger everyone’s lives out there. Instead, we resolved to come back with a strong virtual 2nd phase, without going into hiatus.
Preceding phase 1 was concluded with an Instagram challenge of “This or That”, based on our awareness posts. The second phase was a virtual interview series incorporated with a sequence of articles based on the hardships families of children with autism undergo. Hither, our focal aim was to perceive the medicinal, scientific understanding of this spectrum disorder along with the empathic and affection aspects. Thus team Spectra teamed up with three well-known personalities in our country who have much experience in this discipline.
Foremost two interviews were done with famous TV anchor Mrs. Wasanthi Nananyakkara and celebrated singer Mrs. Umara Sinhawansha to detail about ASD from a mother’s perspective and the challenges that come along with it. Being mothers of children on the spectrum, they recounted their day-to-day experiences with us and how they tackled various issues and affairs. Rather than seeing the child as a burden, regard him/her as a blessing in disguise; a precious message was conveyed to all the parents out there who live through similar situations.
The latter discussion was focused on delivering the manner Autism affects children and how it compromises their social and behavioral interactions. We sat down with Prof. Samanmali Sumanasena, an experienced clinician and an academic in the field of child development and child disability to talk up about this. It was quite an informative and interesting talk, which proved that proper guidance and early detection can make it easier for the children on the spectrum to adjust to the whole situation. Also apart from the article series based on the interviews, we published two more articles illustrating the issues and ordeals the families of children on the spectrum deal with.
Done and dusted! After three physical meetings and a couple of dozens of hurried meetings via Zoom and Google meet, project spectra marked its accomplished ending on 22nd of May, 2021. Literally, what a ride it had been! Despite the rocky road we traveled on, in fact, it was a delightful wonder that we got to conclude our project in such a buoyant manner. There were times I actually felt like whether things started going downhill when our cycling event disrupted by Corona. Several times, we had to cancel our plans and alter our timeline because our team members were hassled with many odds like technical issues, forgetting deadlines, and also atypical causes such as natural disasters (Buwaneka ta ganwathura, Dinushkata current na, Cabilan ge laptop eka kadila. Shoot, all on the same day!). Undoubtedly it was like an ill omen cursing us throughout the second phase. Therefore, we are indeed more than happy to wrap up Spectra on a successful note.
Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible if it was not for our brilliant POC, the behind-the-scenes crew of the whole deed. There are certain things I feel like jotting here. Actually, our PR campaign was up to the mark that our project chairs even got calls from companies for inquiries of other projects! It was that good. Moving on, we should thank our IT kids Asala and Buwaneka, for helping us a lot; some nights without even getting a wink of sleep. Well, especially in Buwaneka’s case I think he covered some of those wide-awake nights by getting his beauty sleep during the daytime. We all were panicking in the group, ”OMG! Where is Buwaneka?!” or “Where is the video?” Then he comes saying, “ Ane, mn nidagatta. Ai mokada wune?” Well, I must give credits to him for terrifying all of us with mini heart attacks like that. And we are very much thankful to our dearest PR Directors Reshani akki and Ruchira aiya as well as the VPs Sachindra aiya and Sithira aiya for lightening our energy drained, sunken moods by maintaining some ‘very interesting conversations’ without a fail and not letting our group dry up with the work flowing in tandem. And guess what, we were able to make an afresh batch of WhatsApp stickers to our beloved POC members. None of them were left out! Though this was a strenuous period of time, surely we were able to have our fair share of fun.
As the endnote, I’d like to give a huge shout-out to all our club members out there who helped us in any way possible in the course of the project. In this stigmatic society, where everyone and everything is labeled by stereotypes, most of the time people with autism are put into the spotlight and get harassed, mistreated. Spectra was carried on with the hope of creating a society where the people on the spectrum were also treated not as mere paradoxes, but as equal human beings with equal rights, which could only be achieved with better understanding. We hope one day entire mankind will see the daylight with a promising future along with a more compassionate society where no one will ever have to hide themselves behind some covert mask, for the sake of living. When that day comes, people will finally appreciate the passage, “Embrace the Au-someness”.
By Rtr. Nishakya Liyanarachchi