Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is under diagnosed and in need of support, especially as it affects one in every 68 children globally.
That is one of the reasons why, Charles Pashley, CEO of Prestige Holdings Ltd, said his organisation teamed up with the Right Start Early Intervention Programme to raise awareness in TT.
At the I Am More Than Autism! Autism Awareness media launch on April 7 at Price Plaza, Chaguanas, Pashley said the company began working with Right Start in 2014 by lighting up a few restaurants as part of the global Light It Up Blue campaign. This year, they lit 22 restaurants.
He said the company’s brands – TGI Fridays, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Subway – had 123 restaurants and 3,300 employees across the country so it had the unique ability to touch almost every community in TT and create more awareness with both its employees and customers.
Internally, Prestige creates a new supporting theme every year, provides education sessions, hosts internal competitions, and the company’s annual calender features highlights of the previous year’s Autism Awareness Month activities. External efforts include the lighting the outside of restaurants blue, educational pamphlets at selected restaurants, branded KFC snack boxes, educational messages on social media, and sponsorship of radio segment on selected stations twice a day during the month of April.
This year it also donated $15,000 to Right Start.
“We need to continue to support the awareness of this disorder as there is limited understanding the world over and it is by spreading this awareness that will sensitise people of the disorder and encourage more investments into research into the disorder, thereby increasing funding to support the early detection and treatment of the disorder.”
He told Sunday Newsday many other disorders had a lot of funding and attention so when Right Start approached Prestige, its management was eager to get involved, especially when they realised they could create a lot of awareness in a short period of time.
“We thought it was the ideal opportunity to team up with Right Start to create more and more awareness every year.... Because of the quality of organisation (Right Start) that it is as well, that was one of the driving factors for us to get involved. They were really focussed on helping the kids, and helping the communities get better access to the early detection opportunities.”
He said the initial idea was to help employees who had autistic children, not about a return on investment.
He said they were able to provide their employees with information to recognise the symptoms of autism and, because of that information, employees took their children for testing, realised their children were autistic, and were able to send them for treatment.
“A lot of the poorer communities in TT where we have restaurants, they really don’t have access to the kind of information they need for the early detection of autism. We have seen that as a secondary benefit, the social support of the country over the last four years.”
Donnella Rodriguez-Laird, speech pathologist, and co-founder and director at Right Start Early Intervention Programme said her organisation had been raising awareness for years but wanted to do more and join the global initiative of lighting it up blue.
She said its members reached out to a lot of people but got limited responses.
They collaborated with 3canal for a while and later Prestige came on board.
“What I like about them is that they do their own thing internally – they educate their staff, they invited me to come in – whereas other companies would just give us a cheque. The mission is not to just raise funds,” although she said the money was greatly appreciated.
She said they used to give the money to families to pay for special programmes within Right Start as well as other therapies such as hippotherapy (horseback riding therapy), and music therapy.
She said last year they used the funds from Prestige to start a sensory gym for autistic children, which they still needed to outfit with more special equipment.
Rodriguez-Laird lamented that Right Start, which serves children from ages 18 months to six years, could only take a limited number of children and that mainstream schools were not equipped, and teachers not trained to deal with students with ASD.
“Because we are speech therapists, parents visit our office and they are at wits’ end because they have been refused by schools because their children are not speaking, are not potty trained, or they have behaviour or sensory issues that may appear as if they can’t learn. The reason we advocate for these children is because they are capable of learning. We just need to adapt the environment to better suit them and then you see them really and truly shine. We would really like to be able to see other schools open up for us to help structure the environment so that we can show them how it could be done.” She said recent research showed that early intervention and parent involvement are the keys to success for autistic children.
This made Right Start passionate about educating the parents and empowering them to do therapy at home, because the children need therapy every day.
In addition to Prestige, for the past six years Right Start has also teamed up with MovieTowne to show sensory-friendly films. On April 28 at 11 am the cinema will feature the movie Ferdinand at a reduced cost. She said parents usually keep the children at home rather than be embarrassed and criticised when the children “act up,” but, on that day, the children would be free to walk about, talk, and do whatever they wish in a cinema that was not too dark or too loud.
She added that Five Islands Water and Amusement Park in Chaguaramas also opened the park to families of children with ASD last Friday at a reduced cost.