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Building a special place for adults with autism

Dang Koe, president ermeritus of the Autism Society of the Philippines.

By Yolanda L. Punsalan, VERA Files

Photos by Mario Ignacio

Very soon, a special place for special people will rise somewhere in Batangas.

It will be the answer to the agony of parents with children with autism: who will take care of them when we are no longer around?

The Association for Adults with Autism, Philippines (AAAP) hopes to address this concern through its flagship project "A Special Place," the country's first residential community for adults with autism, launched at Filipinas Heritage Library last Feb. 20.

Autism is a neurological disorder that stunts a person's mental, social and behavioral growth.

In her article in the Philippine Star, AAAP President Dr. Lirio Sobrevinas-Covey said  autism is a complex behavioral syndrome that first manifests during early childhood, usually between the ages of one and four years old.

Dr. Lirio Sobrevinas-CoveyCovey is a  clinical psychologist, senior research scientist and professor at Columbia University, New York. Her  33-year-old son, Mikey, has lived in the Armonk facility for Persons with Autism (PWA) in New York for the past 10 years.

Covey further wrote, "There are no reliable estimates of the worldwide prevalence of autism. What is generally recognized is that the numbers of children with autism have dramatically increased worldwide, accounted for mostly by improvements in the ability of clinicians to identify the relevant symptoms. In the United States, the prevalence of autism is estimated today at one out of every 110 children, with the ratio higher for males."

In the Philippines, Covey said recent estimates indicate that there are about 1,000,000 Filipinos who fall in the broad category of autistic spectrum disorders.

Kicking off the launching of "A Special Place" was a silent auction of art paintings in oils, pastels and computer graphics by persons with autism.

It featured art works of Andrei Macapagal, the 40-year-old firstborn of Arthur and Mariter Jalandoni-Macapagal; Matthew F. Aragon, 15-year-old son of lawyer Rosalio Aragon and wife Mimi; and Victor Francisco Cham, 20-year-old son of architects Victor G. Cham Jr. and Cathy Candelaria-Cham.

The story of Andrei MacapagalThe dream project of building a safe, nurturing place for adults with autism began to take shape through a thesis of Cham's son Carlos, who earned a degree in architecture from the University of Sto. Tomas (UST).

His thesis was on building individual homes for PWA in a campus, patterned after homes for persons with autism in New York, Europe, Canada and the Middle East.

When Carlos met Covey, his thesis got the chance to be transformed into a living reality.

Covey discussed the association's master plan, showing how the evergreen community will benefit not only its residents who are 18 years old and above, but also their families and the entire society as well.

"We will start slowly and small beginning with three homes," she said. "We are finalizing the purchase of a two-hectare lot outside Lipa City from the Maralit family."

Covey added that the search for the site that would be home to Filipino adults with autism took into consideration its "proximity to nature, not being flood-prone, and accessibility to urban amenities and hospitals."

With a P30-million budget, the residential community for adults with autism will be complete with house parents and facilities for education, work, therapy and recreation, among other things.

One of the project's supporters is award-winning broadcast journalist Karen Davila, who publicly confessed her anger and frustration when her son David was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 ½ years old.

She said she realized that was why he never called her mom, never looked at her in the eye, and why he was always screaming and rolling on the floor.

Davila recalled she at first refused to have a support group, opting to fight her battle as a special parent singlehandedly.  Aside from conducting an extensive research on autism, she provided David occupational and speech therapy, biomedication, and chelation.

She also supervised his gluten-free diet, gave him 25 supplements a day, and submitted him to the care of a Defeat Autism Now (DAN) doctor.

She was rewarded with a hearty applause when she announced that David, who is now 10 years old and goes to a regular school, just won third place in a spelling bee contest.

Also pledging support for the project was the board of the Enviro team, American homebuilders, led by Glenn Camp whose son has autism.  He was accompanied by Ron Sims, who was introduced as a friend of President Barack Obama.

Overseas support groups and Filipinos abroad who are also dealing with autism in their families will also be tapped.  (Those who wish to support "A Special Place" can visit the AAAP website http://adultautismphil.wordpress.com.)

President emeritus of the Autism Society Philippines Dang Koe appealed to Filipinos to help make this dream of building a special place for adults with autism come true.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")

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