KUALA LUMPUR: According to the ministry of health, the number of diagnoses for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Malaysia has been rising steadily over the past decade. Last year’s figures showed 589 children below age 18 were diagnosed, up 5% from 562 in 2020.
In contrast, only 99 children under 18 were diagnosed with ASD in 2010.
According to Joel Antony of J8 Autism Athletics, those on the spectrum are often regarded as “handicapped”, where “a cap is put on these people on what they can or cannot do”.
While most people face anxiety and sensory overload to varying degrees, those on the spectrum generally experience this more greatly. As such, they have a more challenging time coping with everyday tasks due to their heightened sensitivity to stimuli.
“If we can look beyond ‘us vs them’, people with autism are not that much different,” he told FMT. “All human beings need and want structure in their lives, and we can accommodate those with autism by providing structured environments for them.”
To that end, Antony founded J8 Autism Athletics in 2019 with the goal of using sports and fitness to create opportunities for those with such disabilities as autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy.
The goal is to allow them to be assimilated into local sports academies and society in general, as well as to take up vocational jobs. This is done through the refinement of their motor-coordination skills, proprioception – the body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location – and core strength.
The 26-year-old said he had aspired to be a professional footballer but was unable to achieve this owing to injury. He instead decided to draw on his love for sports to make a positive impact by creating opportunities for individuals with neurodevelopmental challenges.
Antony further explained that the “J” in “J8” stands for his name, while the “8” refers to the symbol for infinity, alluding to the “infinite possibilities for people with ASD”.
J8 works with children, teens and adults, and presently has an enrolment of 42, the youngest aged three and the oldest 29. Activities are conducted online, in private residences, or at public parks.
Over time, many of the students have developed and refined their motor and communication skills, including one memorable case of a child who wanted to play with other children but lacked the wherewithal to do so.
“After training with this child for two years, he is now able to play badminton independently with his father and his father’s friends,” Antony said proudly, adding that he is happy to have provided the boy with “opportunities other kids have, that people without autism often take for granted”.
J8’s outreach efforts extend beyond the parents and children in their purview – they also work with educators who interact closely with those with ASD.
For instance, J8 conducted a workshop on Saturday to provide educators with a cohesive understanding of the disorder, and inform them on how to best work with individuals on the spectrum.
“By equipping educators, they will be able to more effectively implement early intervention strategies, facilitating the process of advancing children with ASD into inclusive classrooms at an earlier time frame,” Antony added.