Children of the National Austism Society of Malaysia perform at the launch of Sunshine September at KLCC on Thursday.
At the launch, Datuk Azizah Mohd Dun, Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, meets Suria KLCC Chairman Datuk Hashim Wahir and Andrew Brien, Suria KLCC Executive Director and CEO.
Brien (far left) joins the team to clean the Nasom centre. Pictures by Afendi Mohamad

The Sunshine September campaign hopes to raise autism awareness to a whole new level in the country, writes Stuart Danker

IT started off as Purple Day four years ago. Today, Suria KLCC’s annual Sunshine September campaign is helping to raise awareness of autism in the country.

The campaign is run not only to bring attention to autism but also to educate the public on the condition. One in 600 children here are born with autism, a condition that affects all races and both genders.

“One of the reasons why awareness is important is because autism can be helped much better with early intervention, compared to treating it later in life,” says Suria KLCC CEO Andrew Brien.

Proceeds from the events go to the National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom). Brien explains why Suria KLCC chooses to contribute to this cause: “The reason is simple. Nasom is founded and run by parents of autistic children and they’re still very much involved to this day. You don’t get rich philanthropists as group leaders or ambassadors in Nasom. Instead, the people who guide Nasom know the ins and outs of the cause because their own lives are directly affected by autism. They live, breathe and sleep autism”.

Adding, he says: “The unfortunate side of its operations is that it basically runs on a shoestring budget. Despite that, Nasom is well-positioned to help provide continued assistance to the community and we’re thrilled to play a role in supporting these efforts.”

Autism itself creates a barrier around children when it comes to communicating, regulating emotion and adhering to social norms. The causes remain unknown and there is no full treatment for autism. But there are measures to help the children cope with the symptoms that afflict them. The effects range from mild to severe, varying from lack of eye contact to self-harm.

Brien says: “The thing about autism is that it not only affects the children but their families too. This is another reason why Suria KLCC has chosen this cause. Families are a large part of what we do. We appreciate them and they appreciate our services, which is why we choose to address family-related issues. It’s our way of giving back.”

SHOWERING HOPE

With this in mind, Suria KLCC hopes to raise in excess of RM500,000 to bring its total contribution (since its inception) above the million ringgit mark.

The money is used to better the lives of the children, such as providing mainstream education to over 70 students. The focus on the mainstream counterpart is to help the children adapt to environments that they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise under specialised education. This includes sending the children to school with carers, effectively broadening their horizons and helping them overcome their limitations.

Brien is concerned about the lack of understanding in the country over the woes of families affected by autism and he hopes that Sunshine September will create a platform that can ensure continued support and care, compared to a one-off contribution from the public. He hopes the event will create enough momentum to spur other groups into action to help the cause.

“Children with autism are really bright, and they excel in a great number of things,” says Brien. “Many are very talented in things such as music and expressing themselves artistically. The challenge that they face comes from learning and they are also sensitive to stimuli that generally do not affect others, such as sounds or visual stimulation.”

Continuing, he says: “It’s a topic that not many people are exposed to. Many volunteers admitted that they didn’t know what to expect initially when they volunteered to help out. But as they started interacting with the children, they learnt much more about themselves than they would have otherwise. After every event that we’ve done, such as the birdhouse outings and the housekeeping party, the children always end up conquering their fears and our volunteers leave with big smiles on their faces. Everybody is happy in the end and this is the magic we would like to perpetuate.”

So why was it called Purple Day at the start?

Brien explains: “That’s because our corporate colour is purple. After a while, we realised that we were in an increasingly better position to give back to society and Sunshine September ended up becoming one of our bigger on-going CSR projects.”

Looking thoughtful, he adds: “I have to admit that the first year was tough. Fortunately, we learned more each year and we kept ironing out the kinks. It has evolved positively over time and, within the next five years, I’d love to see Sunshine September take autism awareness to a whole new level.”

The event was launched on Sept 3 in Suria KLCC, Alamanda Shopping Centre in Putrajaya and Mesra Mall in Kerteh, Terengganu. Apart from the special events held at Suria KLCC’s centre court, there will be activities going on for another 14 days.