By CHARMAINE DEOGRACIAS
FIFTEEN-year-old Carlo woke up at 5 a.m last Sunday. While he knew it wasn’t a school day, he got up in his usual way asking for his instant pancit canton for breakfast. There was no resistance this time wearing his P.E. uniform that normally he isn’t so comfortable with. He was off to SM Mall of Asia at sunrise to join “Angels Walk.”
This was Carlo’s day and of other special children like him. This was one time of the year when the mall was closed, but its heart was open to let angels have the place all to themselves.
This was the only time when the outside world seems to have a friendly space for their hyperactivity, and room for their shrieks and tantrums without the odd stares of ordinary shoppers.
“Angels Walk,” a yearly event hosted by SM Malls, kicks off the National Autism Consciousness Week celebration that is on its 15th year. The weeklong program includes fora, seminars on early detection, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, multisensory environment and aqua therapy, quiz bees and painting contest as well as talk and dialogue for family support groups.
To date, there are close to 900,000 Filipinos with autism, or roughly one “Carlo” in every 110 Filipinos.
Erlinda Uy-Koe, president of the Autism Society Philippines (ASP), said the numbers are growing as more and more become aware of this lifelong developmental disorder. While everyone seems to have a neighbor, a friend or relative who has a child with autism, no one still knows the cure and even the cause.
People with autism have an impaired ability to communicate, socialize and adapt to the world around him. They are often believed to have their own worlds.
Carlo has difficulty processing thoughts and ideas that he blurts them out randomly, sometimes accompanied with raw emotions either in anger, laughter or tears.
In the car on the way to Mall of Asia for the Angels Walk, his second time, one of the unprocessed random thoughts he mumbled was, “Galit ako sa bu-aya. Lalaban tayo, si Noynoy Aquino-Mar Roxas.” Arriving at the mall he just cried out of the blue, “Gilbert Remulla.” The effect of election campaign ads had been very hard to undo in the memory of this special child.
Carlo was diagnosed to have functional autism at age two-and-a-half, but it took years for the family to come to terms with his special condition.
The regular school was helpless: They didn’t know how to grade Carlo who would rather sit in a corner and read either the Almanac or a world map.
Carlo’s special education was interrupted when the school he regularly went closed its Special Education department because of the flight of SpEd teachers and therapists for better opportunities abroad. Carlo and his classmates, now teenagers, got reunited at Hopewell Integrated School.
ASP placed the participants on Sunday at close to 6,000, with contingents coming from as far as Bicol who came for the first time. While there will be other “Angels Walk” in selected SM Malls in the province such as Davao, Sunday’s event gathered various Special Education schools, therapy and learning centers from Batangas, Pampanga, Laguna, Cavite and Metro Manila . The biggest contingent, as always, came from Cavite.
ASP has a total of 47 chapters nationwide, nine from Cavite alone. Sixteen learning centers with Special Education program participated in “Angels Walk,” with their special students patiently holding their banners during the “fun walk’ around the mall.
SM so far is the only mall that has partnered with ASP and brought autism awareness to the level of their employees, guards, janitors and salespersons. It has transformed its Committee on Persons With Disability Affairs into a program it now calls SM Cares that caters to the needs of their “special customers.”
This heart that SM has developed for persons with disabilities started from an experience of one boy with autism who got lost in the mall 14 years ago. It took nine long hours for the mother to finally find her son, who was misunderstood by mall personnel because of his special condition. That experience transformed SM to what it is now, acclaimed as the most Disabled-Friendly Establishment in the Philippines.
Carlo has benefitted from that experience by a fellow “Angel.” He also had been lost not just twice but thrice in SM Southmall, but finding him didn’t take that long anymore. If he’s not in the same old stalls he would go to because of his fixation to certain posters or logos, the mall personnel already knew better how to help when given the information that Carlo is a special child.
New “Angels” are born every year. This year many more walked with their grandparents, nannies, parents and some even with the whole family. It’s their wish that more establishments and government programs cater to their needs.
To the beat of the song “I’ve got a feeling” the Angels danced. It sure was a good, good day.