At the age of 12, Maya Kirti Nanan, started an organisation to advocate for, and help promote equity for her autistic brother and others on the autism spectrum.
Six years later, her hard work was recognised locally when she won the Youth Leadership: Community Groups Award at the Ministry of Youth Development and National Service's National Youth Awards on October 2.
Nanan, 18, is the founder and president of the Siblings and Friends Network, the youth arm of the NGO, Support Autism TT which is registered as the Autism Support Network TT.
The Siblings and Friends Network was also shortlisted for two other categories at this year’s awards including Most Effective Community Youth Project for its virtual education series, and its vice president, Celine Frederick, for the Youth Leader Student Award (18-35).
Nanan told WMN she was very happy when the organisation was shortlisted and proud that the work she and the other members were doing was recognised at the national level.
She said the organisation was nominated by her aunt, Dr Radica Mahase, who is also the founder and director of Support Autism TT, and a Newsday contributor on autism.
It was Nanan's first nomination at the youth awards so she was both surprised and proud that she won, and happy to be recognised locally.
“I started the Siblings and Friends Network because I wanted to create opportunities for my younger brother, Rahul, who is on the autism spectrum. I wanted to advocate for inclusion for him and others with disabilities in TT and to create autism awareness.
“Therefore, we conceptualise and develop all the activities we host and ensure they are sensory-friendly and truly inclusive for persons with autism.”
Nanan said the idea came to her when she realised Rahul was not able to do things or go places she did even though they were only one year apart.
Initially, she wanted to get her friends to interact with people on the autism spectrum, as well as involve other siblings so they could have a strong support system.
It started with a handful of her friends. Now, the organisation has over 350 youth volunteers, ages ten to 25.
“Before covid disrupted our regular routines, the Siblings and Friends Network organised events and activities throughout TT, especially for autistic individuals. Some of our regular physical events included our autism Christmas party, autism tea party and fashion show, autism camps and autism outreach booths which were organised throughout the country.
“We held regular fundraising events so that all events were free and financial assistance is given to those from lower-income brackets and rural areas so that they can attend.”
One popular event was Sensory Santa in collaboration with C3 Centre, San Fernando. The mall would dim the lights, lower the music and set up a Santa in a quiet area of the mall for all people with special needs.
Community outreach programmes were held at schools and community centres across the country; and twice a year she would train new volunteers, educating them about the network and showing them methods she learned living with her brother to deal with people with autism.
With the coming of the pandemic and resulting covid19 restrictions, physical events could no longer be held. Therefore, the organisation created a series of virtual events and activities that provide assistance to parents and caregivers, highlight the talents of autistic children, and educate others about autism.
In addition, Maya saw how the closure of schools, lack of access to therapy and inaccessibility to social activities led to regression in her brother. She wanted to help him and other autistic children, so she and her team distributed educational packages comprising sensory and educational items, electronic tablets with apps appropriate for each child’s developmental age, customised food hampers, medical supplements, and social media video campaigns.
The videos of the social media campaign, called Virtual Education Project 2020-2021 are available on the organisation’s Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages.
The recorded and live videos include segments such as Creative Crafters, Happy Hands Segment, Adventures in Bookland, Let's Learn Colours and Shapes, Under the Seas Crafts, and Charts Segments, that help guide parents and caregivers to engage in educational activities.
Previously, Nanan attended San Fernando Central Secondary School where she was a member of the school’s Young Leaders and Interact Club where they often did projects based on autism. They would also do school assemblies, create posters, and sell ribbons to educate the students and staff about autism.
In 2017, her school won the RBC WE Schools competition where she won most outstanding RBC Young Leader as well as a trip to WE Day Toronto. She was also the first local recipient of the Diana Award in 2020 in recognition of her impact as a youth leader and youth advocate.
At the moment, Nanan attends the University of the West Indies Open Campus and is studying for a diploma in youth development work.
“I want to be able to train more youths to be able to work with persons with special needs. I also want to be able to create more opportunities for youths to attend more training programmes from professionals.
“Remember, youths are the future of the country. They are the next prime minister, president, ministers so when they learn from a young age, we will be able to have a national change in policy.”
With the Siblings and Friends Network, she also plans to collaborate with ministries, sponsors and other NGOs to open an autism club house where autistic people could have access to education and therapies.
Nanan said she would like to achieve her goals on her own or while working at the Ministry of Youth Development. And while she has not yet decided what or where she wants to study, she knows her focus will be on the youth and those with special needs.