Like any other mornings, bustling market stalls selling array of tropical fruits, vegetable, meats and alive chickens along the national road 21A was causing traffic congestion. One would miss the alley hidden between brick houses with stalls in the front. There are many families living down in the alley and one of them is Prak Phalla’s.
Phalla, 42 years-old, is a mother of two children, a son, and a daughter. Just like any first-time parent, Phalla was excited and relieved to see her first child born safely and healthy. She and her husband named their first born, Enrico. With a little smile on her face, she recalled him being an adorable and happy baby.
“Whenever I took him out, strangers would stop us and praised how beautiful he was”, said Phalla.
When Enrico reached two years old, Phalla noticed that something was different about her son. Enrico could not walk and talk like other kids at his age. As time went on, Enrico started to exhibit many other behavioral problems. He was aggressive toward everyone, including himself, when he was upset. He did not interact well with other kids. He showed a lack of interest in anything except vehicles such as cars, motorbikes, and buses.
Worried, Phalla and her husband took five-year-old Enrico to the Center for Child Mental Health at Chey Chumneas Hospital in hope of finding out the problem was. She remembered waiting anxiously in the hall while her son was being screened in another room.
After a long excruciating hour, the result came out and Enrico was diagnosed with having Autism Spectrum Disorder. It was the first time that she heard this term and she felt so hopeless.
Was it a sickness? Was there a cure? Will Enrico get better over time? More importantly, will he be able to live independently when he grew up? There were many questions running through her head.
Every day was a struggle for Phalla because like many parents, she did not know how to help a kid with special needs like Enrico. She did not know anyone who had children with special needs like her and didn’t know where to look for help. Worse, people started treating her son and family differently, and they felt the discrimination and stigma upon them.
From time to time, the neighbors would say to her: “What have you done in the previous life? You must have bad karmas to have a son like this.” They would prohibit their children playing with Enrico, afraid of their children being infected by him.
“One evening we took Enrico to a children park and on the way back he saw city bus. He adores city bus and likes riding in it. But we did not take him to ride the bus, so he was extremely upset. We went to this local restaurant to have dinner. Upset Enrico started screaming and crying. A few minutes later, the restaurant owner came to our table and asked us to leave because of other customers’ complaints. We left before our food was served,” recalled Phalla. “I was embarrassed and upset that my son was not accepted by the public”.
As Enrico was getting older, his parents tried to enroll him in schools but he was rejected or asked to leave after for a few months. Eventually, his mother enrolled him in a daycare center run by Hands of Hope Community (HHC) located in Ta Khmau town, Kandal province. With support from Primark and UNICEF, HHC has been working to provide education, care and support to children with physical and intellectual disabilities and their families. Its programmes range from daycare education, home-based care, to parent support groups and awareness-raising campaigns.
At HHC, Enrico benefits from an individual education plan (IEP) which details Enrico’s special educational needs as well as identifies the services and the support that will be provided to meet those needs.
With proper help from well-trained teachers and staff, Enrico has made remarkable progress since he started four years ago. He now exhibits less behavioral problems, communicates better by using picture cards, dresses himself and more importantly has friends.
Thanks to HHC parent support programme, Phalla is better-informed about Autism Spectrum Disorder and has learned how to help her son.
When asked what she wanted the public to know about autism, Phalla said: “Autism is not a sickness but rather a development disorder and it is certainly not the result of bad Karmas from pervious life.
“With proper support, people living with Autism Spectrum Disorders, like my son, can unlock their full potential and become active citizens. They can live happy, independent and healthy lives,” said Phalla.