PETALING JAYA: Zara Serena Taufiq’s little sister was diagnosed with severe autism at two years old.
“I didn’t know anything about autism back then. My parents explained it to me and said that’s why my sister behaves differently to other kids,” she told FMT.
“I remember how people used to react to her. She often threw tantrums when we went to a restaurant or other public places, and we’d get kicked out.”
Her sister also had problems communicating and could not articulate normally, so her parents arranged for her to begin attending an autism centre.
Serena often went with her to the centre. It was while she was there with her sister that she realised just how many kids needed help dealing with their autism.
At just 7, Serena was inspired to do something to help and started searching for a way to raise money for the centre.
From the age of three, she had been fascinated by her Rainbow Loom, a peg board on which she weaved coloured bands into bracelets and necklaces. She thought perhaps she could sell these trinkets to raise money.
She began visiting neighbourhood malls and bazaars to sell her hand-crafted adornments under her own brand name: Serena’s Secret.
“But not everyone cares about autism,” she said. “For a long time people just passed me and my wares by with barely a glance.”
She didn’t give up though. Eventually her persistence and hard work paid off and she sold increasing numbers of bracelets and necklaces and was able to regularly donate her profits to the cause she had embraced.
She soon started organising Rainbow Loom training and sales sessions at Sunway Putra Mall and other major shopping complexes to raise more money. She was discovering she was a natural entrepreneur.
Eventually she raised a grand total of nearly RM90,000 selling her handmade ornaments. She never spent any of the money on herself, instead donating it all to the National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom).
Nasom used some of her money to buy laptops for the kids, and Microsoft Malaysia donated SwiftKey virtual keyboard predictive software to help the teachers increase the children’s communication skills.
Despite her busy school timetable and athletics schedule, she still always finds time to regularly help out at the Learning Connection in Kuala Lumpur and the Nasom vocational centre in Klang.
Now 11, she is more involved in directly helping the kids learn useful developmental skills by teaching them reading, spelling and drawing.
She helps at the autism centre every day after school and at weekends, always preparing her lessons the night before, after doing her school work.
“At heart, they are just like us, and enjoy learning how to do and make things,” she said.
Serena’s mother, Wan Himratul Azliza Wan Harun never thought her daughter could achieve so much.
She told FMT she did not initially encourage Serena to continue what she was doing for the kids, as she thought it would never work.
“But today, I am a very proud mother. I feel inspired by my daughter’s good deeds because it’s not something most people would ever think of doing.”
Serena has a lot more ideas for ways of improving the lives of autistic children and says she will never stop helping them.
In so many unexpected ways, her little sister’s diagnosis has turned out to be a blessing in disguise, especially for other autistic children.